Greatest Playoffs Upsets
Posted May 4 2007 10:30AM
It wasn’t even close. The Warriors stunner over the Mavericks has to rank Numero Uno among the greatest NBA playoff shockers of all time for not only the sheer drama on the court but for the delicious subplots off it.
And with all due respect to the ’73 Warriors, ’87 Sonics and ’90 Suns, here are the Top 10 playoff upsets in NBA history.
1. Whoa Nellie, Warriors Shock Mavs
(Golden State Warriors 4, Dallas Mavericks 2, 2007 First Round, NBA Playoffs)
It was the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks, owners of the ninth best record in NBA history and last season’s Western Conference champions vs. the 42-40 Golden State Warriors, a team that clinched the eighth and final playoff spot on the last day of the regular season and its first in 13 seasons.
It was also a series that featured subplots galore – Don Nelson returning to face his former team and point guard – Avery Johnson -- whom he mentored and groomed as an NBA coach; the Nellie and Mark Cuban ever deteriorating relationship and the family angle with Nellie’s son, Donnie, serving as the Mavs President of Basketball Operations.
On paper, the matchup was a mismatch but in reality it was far closer. The Warriors couldn’t have handpicked a better first-round opponent to shake off its playoff cobwebs while the Mavericks couldn’t have received any worse of a draw.
Heading into the series, the Warriors had defeated the Mavs five straight times, dating back to the ’05-06 season.
Make it six.
The Warriors dominated the Mavs 97-85 in Game 1 as a resurrected and rejuvenated Baron Davis nearly posted a triple double. The win only enhanced the psychological advantage the Warriors enjoyed over the Mavs as Nelson continued to embrace his team’s underdog role with the media.
After losing Game 2, the Warriors won Games 3 and 4 in a raucous record capacity Oracle Arena and squandered a golden opportunity to close it out in Dallas up nine with 3:07 remaining.
But that merely meant history had to be made on another night and was courtesy of Stephen Jackson’s seven three-pointers and Davis delivering almost another triple double despite a sore hamstring as the Warriors dominated Game 6, 111-86.
The Warriors joined the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks as the only No. 8 seeds to upset a No. 1 seed yet Golden State owns the distinction of being the only team to accomplish this in a seven-game series, a much more difficult accomplishment.
As memorable and historic of a series as it was for Nellie, Davis and the Warriors, it was an embarrassing, epic flop for Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs, who become the first team in NBA history to win 65 or more regular-season games and lose in the first round.
2. Warriors Sweeping Surprise
(Golden State Warriors 4, Washington Bullets 0, 1975 Finals)
No one was hotter entering the postseason. The Bullets, winners of 60 regular-season games, knocked out the Buffalo Braves and the defending champions, Boston Celtics, in the first two rounds. Four games against the 48-34 Warriors, a team they defeated three out of four times in the regular season, now separated the Bullets from its first ever championship.
It was the highest scoring team in the league --the Warriors, 108.5 ppg -- vs. the second best defensive team in the league -- Bullets, 97.5 ppg.
Washington featured All-Stars Wes Unseld (14.8 rebounds per game), Elvin Hayes (23 PPG), Phil Chenier (21.8) and Kevin Porter who led the league in assists versus a team with one All-Star – Rick Barry (30.6 PPG) – and a host of complementary players including rookie of the year, Jamaal Wilkes.
The Warriors caught the first break of the series when it inadvertently gained homecourt advantage courtesy of the ice show and karate competition being held in Landover, MD. Instead of the 2-2-1-1-1 format, it was now Game 1 in Landover and Game 2 and 3 in Oakland before returning to Landover for Game 4.
The Warriors stole Game 1, 101-95 and their confidence soared along with the momentum of the series. Golden State went on to win the next two in the Bay Area as Hayes was held to a mere 29 points in the first three games, thanks to the smothering defense of Wilkes who was fronting and pushing him at every turn.
The Warriors closed out the series in four games, only the third time in NBA history, thanks in large part to Barry, who took home Finals MVP honors and the Warriors’ bench, which outscored Washington’s by a total of 147-61. The Warriors also dominated the boards, 90-28.
“Our starting five beat their starting five, but their bench wore us out,” said Hayes.
3. Nuggets Strike Gold
(Denver Nuggets 3, Seattle SuperSonics 2, 1994 First Round)
It was the first time a No. 8 seed knocked off a No. 1 seed since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1984. The Seattle SuperSonics had everything going for them – a league best 63-19 record, two All-Stars in Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp along with experienced players ---Detlef Schrempf, Kendall Gill, Ricky Pierce, Sam Perkins, Nate McMillan and Michael Cage --the homecourt advantage and most importantly, a 2-0 series lead.
The 42-40 Nuggets featured an inexperienced roster but somehow was able to shock the Sonics in Game 3, 110-93 before pulling out an overtime victory in Game 4, 94-85.
Nervous? Scared? Not these Nuggets heading into Game 5.
"I don't like to be rude, but these are the playoffs, said Nuggets’ center Dikembe Mutombo. Nobody invites you into their house. You just have to go in and get comfortable."
The Nuggets certainly did, dictating the pace of the game, feeding Mutombo while guard Robert Pack heated up in the fourth quarter, scoring 10 of his 23 points. Even though Gill was able to force overtime, the Nuggets managed to shock the NBA world, winning the game, 98-94, while leaving us with one of the more indelible image in recent playoff history – Dikembe Mutombo clutching the ball while basking in sheer delirium after pulling down the final rebound of classic upset.
4. Russell Goes Out in Championship Style
(Boston Celtics 4, Los Angeles Lakers 3, 1969 NBA Finals)
It was the last link in the celebrated Celtics dynasty, the last stand. Yet unlike its championship predecessors, this Celtics team had shown its age. Player-coach Bill Russell was 35 and playing on two bad knees, Sam Jones, also 35, was ready to retire after the season. Throw in an un-Celtics like 48-34 record and fourth place Eastern Division finish and it appeared the Dynasty was all but over.
Yet the Celtics managed to upset the 55-27 Philadelphia 76ers in the first round and the 54-28 New York Knicks in the Eastern Division Finals to make its 11th NBA Finals appearance in 13 seasons. The 55-27 Los Angeles Lakers, who had acquired Wilt Chamberlain prior to the season and also featured All-Stars Jerry West and Elgin Baylor were looking forward to finally ending the Finals stranglehold the Celtics had on this franchise since it moved to L.A., losers in seven championship series matchups. Of course, the series would head for a Game 7 for the third time in eight years. So sure were the Lakers of finally winning the title, the team owner, Jack Kent Cooke, ordered thousands of balloons, which were suspended in the netting near the Forum ceiling in anticipation of the big celebration. That was all of the motivation the Celtics needed who pulled out its 11th championship thanks to a lucky Don Nelson foul line shot that hit the back iron, shot straight up only to find its way through the hoop.
The game was mired in some controversy as Chamberlain took himself out of the game with 5:45 to play in the fourth, citing pain in his knee. When he was ready to return, his coach Bill van Breda Kolff wasn’t, not wanting to disrupt the Lakers comeback and leaving Chamberlain helpless on the bench.
5. Do You Believe in (Nets) Upsets?
(New Jersey Nets 3, Philadelphia 76ers 2, 1984 First Round)
First-year Nets head coach Stan Albeck promised a playoff victory to Nets fans and delivered more than that, he delivered one of the most unexpected upsets in NBA Playoff history. The Philadelphia 76ers who won an NBA title in unprecedented fashion the season prior, going 12-1, were stunned by the Nets in five games in the first round of the 1984 playoffs. What was surprising about this series was that the Sixers lost all three home games by an average of 10.6 points in the five-game series to a franchise that had never won a playoff game in its previous seven seasons in the NBA.
Various Nets players stepped up throughout the series, young – Buck Williams and Albert King – and old --Micheal Richardson, Otis Birdsong and Darryl Dawkins (who was only two years removed from being traded from Philadelphia).
The Sixers became the 15th consecutive team, dating back to the 1969 Boston Celtics, that didn’t defend its title.
6. Baylor and Lakers Clip Pettit and Hawks
(Minneapolis Lakers 4, St. Louis Hawks 2, Western Division Finals)
It was the only team to successfully interrupt the greatest dynasty in NBA history. The 1959 St. Louis Hawks, who dethroned the Boston Celtics in ’58, were looking at a repeat of their own. The Hawks won its third straight Western Division title despite some coaching changes that season – Alex Hannum being replaced by Andy Phillip who was replaced by player Ed Macauley. Bob Pettit won his second NBA MVP award that season while also leading the league in scoring (29.2).
Just when the Hawks were thinking of starting their own dynasty, the 33-39 Minneapolis Lakers, led by Rookie-of-the-year forward Elgin Baylor and Vern Mikkelsen, stunned the Hawks in six games. In the decisive Game 6, Baylor had 33 points and his two free throws with a minute to play clinched the victory.
7. Blazermania Overwhelms Sixers
(Portland Trail Blazers 4, Philadelphia 76ers 2, 1977 Finals)
It was team concept vs. the band of dazzling All-Stars. On one side, you had the youngest team ever to participate in the Finals led by consummate all-around center Bill Walton and his frontcourt enforcer Maurice Lucas along with a plethora of complementary players in Lionel Hollins, Dave Twardzik, Larry Steele and Herm Gilliam versus the greatest (and flamboyant) NBA traveling show on Earth, the Philadelphia 76ers, featuring All-Stars Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins along with World B. Free, Joe “Jelly Bean” Bryant and Darryl Dawkins.
The Sixers were heavily favored to win the series and backed it up by winning the first two games in Philadelphia. Yet the turning point of the series came toward the end of Game 2 when Dawkins threw a roundhouse punch to the Blazers Bobby Gross after both scrambled for a loose ball. Lucas took exception and countered with a blow of his own to Dawkins’ head. The series was never the same.
Re-energized, the Blazers found their running game and proceeded to win the next four games, highlighted by Walton’s Game 6 MVP stat line of 20 points, 23 rebounds, seven assists and eight blocks.
8. Blue Collar Champions
(Detroit Pistons 4, Los Angeles Lakers 1, 2004 Finals)
The Pistons muscled their way to their first Finals appearance the same way they did 15 years ago, with a relentless-stifling defense. Unlike the Pistons of the late ’80s, this season’s version found themselves as major underdogs against a Lakers team that won nine straight home playoff games and boasted two of the league’s premier players in three-time NBA champions Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant along with two future Hall of Famers in Karl Malone and Gary Payton who sacrificed salary, ego and reduced roles to come to L.A. to earn their first ring.
The Pistons set the tone in Game 1, stealing homecourt advantage and holding the league’s third highest scoring team to 75 points. It was also Detroit’s first win in L.A. since 1997. In Game 2, Bryant saved the Lakers season with a miraculous 28 foot three that sent the game into overtime in which was won by L.A.
The Pistons bounced back in Games 3, holding the Lakers to a franchise postseason record low 68 points – the lowest in the 50 years of the shot clock era.
The series would never shift back to L.A. as the Pistons defense continued to dictate the series in Game 4 and 5 wins.
When the dust settled on the series, the numbers spoke for themselves for Detroit, who won by a 13.3 average margin of victory while holding the Lakers to 16 points below its regular season average (98 ppg).
9. Rocketball -- Houston Rockets 1981 Postseason Run
Rocketball, Uglyball, it didn’t matter what you called it, it was effective for the 40-42 Houston Rockets and one of the unlikeliest runs in playoff history – all the way to the ’81 Finals.
How impressive was Houston’s run?
The Rockets knocked off the defending champion Lakers (Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in three games and the Midwest Division champ San Antonio Spurs, who featured the stellar backcourt of George Gervin, Johnny Moore and James Silas (and don’t forget the Bruise Brothers – Mark Olberding, George Johnson and Dave Corzine in the frontcourt) in seven games, including three wins in San Antonio.
The Western Conference Finals between the Rockets and Kansas City Kings assured one thing – the winner advancing to the Finals would be a sub .500. The Kings, who upended the heavily favored 57-25 Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Semis, also boasted a 40-42 record but could only manage one win against the Rockets.
The Rockets were led by a 26-year-old Moses Malone, who posted regular-season averages of 27.8 points and 14.8 rebounds (led the league), 32-year-old Calvin Murphy and defensive specialist Robert Reid.
The Cinderella run ended for the Rockets in the Finals. After splitting the first four games, Malone, unimpressed with the Celtics told reporters, “The Celtics aren’t that great. I could get four guys from the playground in Petersburg [Va., his hometown] and beat them.”
The Rockets proceeded to lose the next two games. Little know fact: Robert Reid held second-year player Larry Bird to a 15.3 points per game average and backed up his famous pre series quote when he said: “I’m going to stick so close to Larry Bird that I can tell you what kind of deodorant he’s wearing.”
10. Hou Da Man! Allan Houston Sinks the Heat
(New York Knicks 3, Miami Heat 2, First Round, 1999 NBA Playoffs)
This makes some people’s all-time upset list while others don’t feel it merits elite selection, primarily due to the lockout shortened season. Maybe you had to live in the New York area to fully understand and appreciate the scope and breadth of this rivalry -- or hatred -- that existed between these two teams.
The subplots were plentiful – Pat Riley facing his former team and former assistant coach in Jeff Van Gundy, the regular and postseason skirmishes (see Jeff Van Gundy Alonzo Mourning leg grab, May 14, 1997) and the upset first round exit at the hands of the Knicks in the 1998 NBA Playoffs. The stage for the 1999 First Round matchup once again pitted the Atlantic Division winners (Heat) against the third place Knicks.
In Game 5 in Miami, the Heat saw its seven-point lead dwindle to one with 19.9 seconds remaining. After the Heat’s Terry Porter poked the ball away, it gave the Knicks an opportunity to set up a final play. After the Knicks inbounded the ball, Allan Houston somehow found an opening between Dan Majerle and Tim Hardaway and elevated and released a short jumper that hit the rim and backboard before dropping through the basket.
Knicks 78, Heat 77
“Obviously, it’s very very painful,” said Pat Riley afterwards. “This hurts a hell of a lot more than last year.”