Cinderella can emerge in NBA's postseason

The wonder of sports is also when someone comes from nowhere to shock the regular party goers, writes Sam Smith of There’s an element of that to this season’s playoffs, though no one has quite picked Atlanta to win the NBA title yet. But what a

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It doesn’t happen often in the NBA, and it hasn’t happened too much in recent years, but it has happened, and it’s happened a dozen or so times.

It’s when a team comes into the playoffs, not only as an underdog, but perhaps given no chance at all, and then makes a run at least to the conference finals.

“It helps being a tough minded group and we were,” says Mike Dunleavy Sr., who played for one of the great playoff miracle teams in NBA history, the 1980-81 Houston Rockets who went to the NBA Finals and lost to Boston in six games despite having a sub-.500 record in the regular season.

Not that the regular season doesn’t matter, but that’s one of the wonderful things about the NBA playoffs, that a Cinderella can emerge. So, by the way, enough with the changing of formats because some Western Conference team couldn’t get to eighth place. The wonder of sports is also when someone comes from nowhere to shock the regular party goers.

There’s an element of that to this season’s playoffs, though no one has quite picked Atlanta to win the NBA title yet.

But what about Brooklyn or Toronto or Washington or even the Bulls?

Why not? It’s not like the Heat or Pacers seem so invincible. Perhaps it’s more so in the Eastern Conference this season, but it could be the season of the unexpected.

After all, there is precedent.

“We were a confident group going in,” recalls Dunleavy Sr., now a talk show host on Sirius NBA radio after being a longtime player, coach and general manager. “And like with most competitors, we felt we could point to something. You always talk about wanting to finish the season (after the All-Star break) at a high level, be healthy and positive for the new season.”

That Rockets team had talent, but couldn’t put it together. They had center Moses Malone along with guard Calvin Murphy, both future Hall of Famers. But there were a number of role players who came together late in the season as they closed winning four of five and seven of 11. It only got them tied for second in their division with the Kansas City Kings, also 40-42.

But both the Rockets and Kings went on to seventh game conference semifinals wins on the road for a conference finals without a team with a winning record.

So it is possible.

It was more prevalent in that era when the first round series was the mini best of three, and then later when it was a best of five first round. Especially in the best of three it was easy to get behind early and tighten up if you were the favorite.

The NBA changed the first round to best of five games in 1984 and to best of seven games in 2003. The NBA moved to the current six divisions for the 2004-05 season.

But history does show, especially when a conference is not strong with a super team, that an unexpected participant can crash the conference finals party.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest surprise teams to make the conference finals:

1995 Houston Rockets: After winning the title in 1994 they basically broke up the team in midseason trading for Clyde Drexler. They stumbled to sixth in the conference with 47 wins and then defeated three teams that all won at least 59 games in a deciding game on the road, twice in seventh games and in a first round fifth game. They then swept the stunned Magic in the Finals.

1978 Washington Bullets: It was a strong but underachieving Washington team with Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes that won 44 games in the regular season for third in the East. The sixth place team had 41 wins. But they took out the defending conference champion and favored 76ers in the conference finals and went on to win the title over the surprise Supersonics, who won 47 games and were fourth in the West.

1976 Phoenix Suns: They were third in the conference at 42-40, but they won a seventh game on the road in the conference finals against defending champion Golden State, who finished 17 games ahead in the regular season. The Suns were dismissed as not belonging on the same floor, though one time Bull Ricky Sobers punching out Rick Barry early in Game 7 did get their attention. That also was the year of the so called “Miracle of Richfield,” when the Cleveland Cavaliers made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history with 49 wins and went to the conference finals. That Finals is known for the Game 5 some consider the greatest Finals game ever when the Suns lost in three overtimes and lost the series in Game 6.

1987 Seattle SuperSonics: Just 39-43 in the regular season and seventh in the conference after building their offensive team with Dale Ellis coming from Dallas to join Tom Chambers and Xavier McDaniel, the Sonics beat Dallas first behind Ellis and then knocked off the defending conference champion Rockets in a double overtime clincher despite 49 points from Hakeem Olajuwon. They were swept by the Lakers in the conference finals, as most teams were in the 1980’s.

1984 Phoenix Suns: The Suns were 41-41 and sixth in the conference after helping rebuild the Celtics again by trading for Rick Robey for Dennis Johnson. The Suns beat Portland and Utah to get to the conference finals and lost to the Lakers, though neither of those early opponents won 50 games, either.

1999 New York Knicks: It was the 50-game lockout season and the Knicks got into eighth with 27 wins, which would translate to 44 in an 82-game season. They’d had injuries earlier in the season and got healthy down the stretch. Though Patrick Ewing was hurt in the playoffs, the Knicks went on to the Finals, where they lost to the Spurs in five games. The Knicks got the disputed Larry Johnson four-point play to beat Indiana in the conference finals and Allan Houston’s runner to beat Pat Riley and Miami in the first round.

1971 Baltimore Bullets: It was the first season of four divisions and the Bullets won the Central at 42-40, which was fourth in the conference. It was one of the more entertaining teams ever with Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld and Gus Johnson. They won game 7’s on the road over defending champion New York and the 76ers before being swept by Kareem’s Bucks in the Finals.

1975 Bulls: The heartbreak season that led to the breakup of the first great Bulls team as the Bulls didn’t win 50 for the first time in five years, winning 47 to actually win their division. At home for Game 6 of the conference finals on Easter Sunday for a chance to go to their first ever Finals, the Bulls blew a lead and lost Game 7 in Golden State, who was a 48-win team. They went on to sweep the 60-win Bullets in the Finals.

The Bulls open the 2014 playoffs on Easter Sunday and history, as well, shows anything is possible.