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Top 10 Greatest Upsets in NBA Playoff History

The Greatest Upsets in Playoff History!
Publish Date:05/08/2023
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis

Top 10 Greatest upsets in NBA playoff history!

10) 1999 Knicks over Pacers Eastern Conference finals

The 1999 lockout pushed the playoff seedings completely out of whack — that’s what’s always forgotten about the Knicks’ otherwise improbable run to the NBA Finals.

Patrick Ewing played 38 out of 50 games during the regular season, missing time dealing with an Achilles tendon injury. The Knicks couldn’t find their footing and fell to the No. 8 seed. But look at the playoff field: No. 4 seed Atlanta’s best player was Steve Smith; the No. 3 seed landed with the late-Penny Hardaway Magic. New York was much better than the eighth-best team in the East.

No. 1 seed Miami was good, don’t get me wrong — Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, and Jamal Mashburn were all in their prime, and Zo was arguably the best player in the Eastern Conference. But New York had Ewing, Allen Houston, Larry Johnson, and Latrell Sprewell — not too shabby — and Jeff Van Gundy’s club was the No. 4 defense in the NBA.

Upsetting Miami in round one in a 5-game series wasn’t wildly unpredictable. No offense to the Heat, but their inability to make it deep in the playoffs with that nucleus leaves me unsympathetic.

Instead, we should be celebrating New York’s run to the Finals without Ewing. After splitting the opening games of the East Finals with Indiana, Ewing was sidelined for good. But Johnson’s Game 3 heroics on a 4 point play during game 3 sparked New York, and the Knicks would advance to the Finals after winning Games 5 and 6.

Too bad for the Pacers, phantom foul or not, that Larry Johnson’s bomb and subsequent free throw go down on every replay. The Pacers were a superior team, but sometimes destiny is more important than superiority.

Video: Larry Johnson 4 Point Play vs. Pacers (1999 ECF Playoffs Game 3 on NBC)

Larry Johnson 4 Point Play vs. Pacers (1999 ECF Playoffs Game 3 on NBC)

9) 2001 Hornets over Heat

The 2000-2001 Charlotte Hornets were not expected to do much against a veteran Miami Heat team with a hall of fame coach in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The Heat had Pat Riley as their coach and had veteran leadership up and down their lineup. Anthony Mason, Brian Grant, and Tim Hardaway had led the Heat to an impressive 50-32 record, good enough for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Hornets, on the other hand, finished at 46-36 and did not seem to have the weapons or experience to compete with Miami.

But the sixth-seeded Hornets had other ideas. Baron Davis, Jamal Mashburn, and Eddie Robinson were determined to be a factor in the playoffs.

All of the Hornets began sporting the same headbands that Davis and Robinson wore in a show of unity.

The result was a shockingly easy three-game sweep over the heavily favored Heat.

The sweep was especially satisfying for Mashburn, who had been blamed for the Heat’s previous playoff failures.

Against his former team, Mashburn would score 71 points and was a defensive force. He would also shoot 25-of-25 from the charity stripe.

Davis was also a big factor in the stunning sweep of Miami, as he averaged 20.3 points per game.

The defeat of Miami was so complete that Charlotte outrebounded Miami by almost 10 rebounds per game and held the Heat down offensively the entire series. But, once again, the heat had come up short when it mattered most.

Video: Playoffs 2001, Charlotte Hornets-Miami Heat 3-0.wmv

Playoffs 2001, Charlotte Hornets-Miami Heat 3-0.wmv

8) 1999 New York over Miami

The season of 1998-1999, when the teams only played a 50-game season because of a player strike, is difficult to quantify on this list. As such, the question always has to be asked: Were the Knicks really a legitimate No. 8 seed?

Was the Miami Heat a legitimate No. 1?

It is hard to say.

We do know that when this upset took place, the Knicks vs. Heat rivalry was at its high point.

Pat Riley was facing his former team, coached by Riley’s former assistant, Jeff Van Gundy.

The two teams genuinely did not like each other. Remember the incident in 1998 where Van Gundy grabbed onto the leg of Alonzo Mourning?

The bad blood got even nastier when the Knicks bounced the Heat from the playoffs the year before.

Lockout or not, the storylines for this series were everywhere—and the teams did not disappoint.

New York smoked Miami in Game 1 in Miami, and it looked like the Knicks would roll.

But Miami would get even in Game 2.

The teams would then split the two games in New York. That would mean a fifth and deciding game back in Miami.

Game 5 would be one of the best deciding games in NBA history. Miami had a seven-point lead fairly late in the fourth quarter. But the Knicks kept chipping away and chipping away until they cut the deficit to one with about 20 seconds left. Then, with just 0.8 seconds left in the game, Allan Houston split the defense and put up a short jumper that hit the rim, bounced off the backboard, and went through to put the Knicks up 78-77.  However, Terry Porter’s long jumper at the buzzer was unsuccessful, and the New York Knicks became only the second No. 8 seed ever to beat a No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

Video: 1999 NBA Playoffs ECR1 Game 5 - Knicks vs Heat - Final minute

1999 NBA Playoffs ECR1 Game 5 – Knicks vs Heat – Final minute

7). 1973 Golden State over Milwaukee:

With the 1973 Warriors, Rick Barry indeed rejoined the team after a few seasons in the ABA, but the Warriors had not been too much of a threat to make the Finals. They’d reached the playoffs the year before Barry returned, but when Barry came back, the team actually regressed, going from 51 wins in 1972 to 47 in 1973. The Warriors lost one game in the regular season relative to the Bucks, who had won it all in 1971, pushed the 1972 Lakers (one of the great teams of all time) to six tough games in the West finals, and were one year away from returning to the NBA Finals (in 1974). The Bucks came within one game of winning the title.

This was supposed to be Milwaukee’s series. Instead, another Bucks-Lakers West final was supposed to be in the cards.

What makes this series even more upset is that Milwaukee won Games 1 and 3 by 20 points apiece. The Bucks established how good they were. Yet, in a remarkable development – it is like a legendary upset to produce at least one if not more – the Warriors displayed all the poise in close games in this series. They won Games 2 and 5 in Milwaukee by three points, holding the potent Bucks under 100 points. They also won Game 4 by a mere five points, so even though the Warriors led the series 3-2 heading back to the Bay Area for Game 6, Milwaukee had outscored Golden State by 29 points in the series.

Then, in Game 6, the Bucks – imploded on offense. They scored 86 points, and the Dubs cruised to a 100-86 win, their easiest triumph of the series. Given that the 68-win Boston Celtics were about to get knocked out of the playoffs, the Bucks could have been in prime position to win the title heading into the conference finals.

The Warriors never gave them a chance.

6) 1994 Denver over Seattle

This was only a best-of-five series, not a best-of-seven, so it rates lower on the list, but this was a landmark event, the first time a No. 8 seed had ever beaten a top seed in the 16-team (four-round) playoff era. Thus, landmark upsets find this list.

What added to the weight of this upset? Seattle made the Western Conference Finals in 1993 and pushed the Phoenix Suns to a Game 7 before losing. This was an excellent team with playoff experience. It went 63-19 in the 1994 season, a rare “under-20-losses” club member. The SuperSonics also won the first two games of this series without too much worry. Denver’s ability to not only rally but win consecutive overtime games against a more accomplished opponent – including the deciding Game 5 on the road in Seattle – left observers speechless.

Video: This Day in History: Denver Nuggets upset 1st seeded Seattle Supersonics in Playoffs

This Day in History: Denver Nuggets upset 1st seeded Seattle Supersonics in Playoffs

5) 2007 Golden State over Dallas

This is a landmark upset, the first time an 8 seed beat a top seed since the first round moved to a best-of-seven format.

Even more than Nuggets-SuperSonics in 1994, this upset reverberated throughout the NBA. The 2007 Mavericks, unlike the 1994 Sonics, had reached the NBA Finals the year before. Dirk Nowitzki was setting his sights on the championship, which somehow eluded him in the 2006 Finals against the Miami Heat. Typically, the NBA is a league where teams that go deep into the playoffs and fall short one year can go deep the next year. After the Mavericks went 67-15 in the regular season, they stood as the clear favorite in the Western Conference. The Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol union in Lakeland was still a season away.

Yet, Baron Davis, Matt Barnes, and the rest of the Golden State Warriors – behind former Dallas coach Don Nelson (oh, how that had to sting the Mavs and their fans) – constantly flummoxed and rattled the Mavs with their energy and pace. Oracle Arena was louder then than it was during the Warriors’ championship run this past spring.

Video: Final 1:15 WILD ENDING

Final 1:15 WILD ENDING “We Believe” Warriors vs Mavericks In 2007 Playoffs 🙌🔥

4) 1984 New Jersey over Philadelphia

Going into this series, the Nets had never won a playoff game, and going up against the defending champions did not seem to be the tonic the young Nets would need to get their playoff fortunes on track.

But New Jersey would shock Philadelphia in Games 1 and 2 in Philadelphia, winning both games by double digits.

The Sixers looked old and tired. Dr. J, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks—all of them had lost a step, and the young Nets, led by Buck Williams and Albert King, pounced on them.

But when the series shifted to Newark, the Sixers suddenly showed why it is always so hard to end the reign of a defending champion, especially one with as much talent as the Sixers.

Philly would win Games 3 and 4 by eight points each time, and the series would shift back to the Spectrum for a fifth and decisive game.

Surely the Nets could not win the third game in Philadelphia—could they?

Yes, they could, as it turns out. The Sixers had a seven-point lead about halfway through the final quarter, but they could not hold that lead.

Led back by Micheal Ray Richardson, the Nets began to claw away at that lead. Then, the Sixers started turning the ball over, and before you knew it, New Jersey had taken control. The Nets would win Game 5 101-98 to cap an amazing upset of the defending champions in a series where the road team won every game.

Video: 1984 NBA Playoffs: New Jersey Nets upsets Philadelphia Sixers

1984 NBA Playoffs: New Jersey Nets upsets Philadelphia Sixers

3) 1976 Phoenix over Golden State

Just when they had established themselves as the class of the league by sweeping their way to the 1975 championship, and just when the rest of the NBA was as mediocre as it had ever been – with only two teams winning 50 or more games in the 1976 season (Boston with 54) – the 59-23 Golden State Warriors lost their nerve.

No team in the West other than the Warriors won more than 43 games in 1976. The NBA was that devoid of quality. The Phoenix Suns made the playoffs with a 42-40 record, and they did not have to play a tough team in the West semifinals. So when they got crushed by the Warriors, 128-103, in Game 1 of the West finals, not a soul on this green earth (Phoenix, of course, doesn’t have green earth; it has dirt or gravel, and that was, even more, the case in 1976…) thought the Suns would rise high enough to overcome Golden State.

So, what happened? Naturally, something out of the left field. The Warriors had scored 128, 101, and 111 points in the first three home games of the 1976 West Finals.In Game 7, they limited the Suns to 94 points. They lost… because they scored only 86 in a nightmarish game at the worst possible time.

Video: Phoenix Suns Since '68: 1976 WCF Suns vs Warriors

Phoenix Suns Since ’68: 1976 WCF Suns vs Warriors

2) 1975 Golden State over Washington

Nobody saw this coming, very similar in baseball terms to the 1990 world series between Oakland and Cincinnati. The team that was supposed to sweep got swept. Washington had won 3 out of 4 of the team’s regular-season meetings and was led by Hall of Famers Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. The Warriors, led by sharpshooting Rick Barry dominated series-sweeping Washington in 4 games.

Video: The '75 Golden State Warriors: The GREATEST NBA Cinderella Season

The ’75 Golden State Warriors: The GREATEST NBA Cinderella Season

1) 1986 Houston over Lakers

The Lakers’ 1985 title was the most special in franchise history. The team’s veteran core had defeated the Boston Celtics, winning the NBA Finals in Boston Garden. The Lakers chased away from their demons, so when they powered into another West finals series after a 62-win regular season, the Rockets – young and the owners of only 51 wins – did not figure to stand in their way. Yet, Houston – after getting blown away by the Lakers’ open-court attack in Game 1, settled down and won three straight games by at least eight points. None of the wins were blowouts, but the Lakers couldn’t solve the Rockets.

The Lakers’ great trio of Kareem, Magic, and Worthy averaged at least 20 points per game in the series, but Houston’s prime players were better. Hakeem Olajuwon, at age 23, outplayed the 38-year-old Abdul-Jabbar. The dream went for 31 points, 11 rebounds, 2 steals, and 4 blocks per game in the series. Ralph Sampson averaged 20 and 9 with 4 assists and 2 blocks per game.

The postscript to this massive upset: Houston didn’t return to the West finals (forget the NBA Finals) until the team’s first championship season in 1994. In many ways, the surprise of the 1986 Western Conference Finals isn’t even that the Lakers didn’t win it; it’s that Houston didn’t remain as formidable a team over the next several seasons.

Video: Ralph Sampson Shocks the Lakers with the Game Winner

Ralph Sampson Shocks the Lakers with the Game Winner

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