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13 Biggest NBA Playoff Upsets

by: Esteban On  Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Tags:  Basketball   NBA   NBA Playoffs   Upsets  

biggest NBA playoff upsets

The 2013 NBA Playoffs are officially underway, and so far the best teams are dominating the way they are supposed to. However, that doesn’t mean we won’t see any upsets this year. You never know when an underdog will pull it all together, or when a powerhouse will stumble. Maybe Kevin Durant will sprain an ankle. Maybe Stephen Curry will turn into Allen Iverson circa 2001. Who knows. The only thing we know for sure is that upsets happen, and you never really know when.

Today we celebrate the upset by looking at the 13 biggest NBA playoff upsets of all-time. Take a look to see if your favorite underdog made the list.


13. Nets over 76ers (First Round, 1984)


The Sixers didn’t have as good of a record in 1983-84 as in 1982-83, when they won the NBA Championship. However, the defending champs were still 52-30, and they still had a couple of guys named Moses Malone and Julius Erving. Nevertheless, Philadelphia lost to the 45-37 Nets in the first round, with the road team winning every game.


12. 76ers over Bulls (First Round, 2012)

12 derrick rose injury 2012 playoffs - biggest nba playoff upsets

In the entire history of the NBA, there have only been five instances of a #8 seed beating a #1 seed in the first round, and only three of them occurred after the league instituted best-of-seven series for all rounds. This 76ers victory over the Bulls last year was one of them.

So if this achievement is so rare in basketball, why isn’t this upset ranked higher? Well, if you’re a basketball fan you already know the answer: the Bulls lost their best player, Derrick Rose, the 2011 NBA MVP, to an ACL injury at the end of game one. Then they lost their second-best player, Joakim Noah, to a severe ankle sprain in Game 3. That pretty much leveled the playing field and the 76ers—to their credit—took full advantage, beating Chicago in six games.


11. Rockets over Jazz, Suns, Spurs, and Magic (1995)

11 rockets magic olajuwon shaq 1995 nba finals - biggest nba playoff upsets

The Houston Rockets won the NBA Championship in 1994 thanks to stellar play from Phi Slamma Jamma brothers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde “The Glide” Drexler (and the retirement of Michael Jordan). So can you really call anything the defending champs did in 1995 an upset? Well, if they’re record in 1995 was just as good as 1994, and if all they did was beat one team ranked higher than them, then no. However, in 1994-95 the Rockets were just 47-35, and in winning their second consecutive championship they had to beat Karl Malone and the Jazz (60-22), Charles Barkley and the Suns (59-22), David Robinson and the Spurs (62-20), and then Shaquille O’Neal and the Magic (57-25).

So if there was ever a case in which you could say the defending champs pulled off an upset, this would be it.


10. Rockets over Lakers (First Round, 1981)


Back in 1981, the opening round of the NBA playoffs was only a best-of-three series. Does that seem kind of insane to you? Yeah, well, it was. It enabled the sub-.500 Houston Rockets (40-42) to defeat Kareem, Magic, and the rest of the defending champion Lakers.

If this upset had come in a best-of-seven or even a best-of-five series, it would rank much higher on the list—probably at the very top. However, if it were a best-of-seven or best-of-five series, the upset probably wouldn’t have happened at all.


9. Knicks over Heat (First Round, 1999)

9 knicks heat 1999 - biggest nba playoff upsets

When the Knicks beat the Heat in 1999, they became only the second #8 team to beat a #1 in the opening round of the playoffs. Why does it rank so far down on the list? Well, for starters, the Knicks weren’t a bad team. They weren’t great, but with a record of 27-23 they weren’t bad. Moreover, 1998-99 was a lockout-shortened year. Teams played only 50 games that season, so who’s to say how things would have worked out in the standings if they’d played another 32.

That being said, Miami’s one-two punch of Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway was better than New York’s one-two punch of a 33-year-old Patrick Ewing and Allan Houston, so the Heat still should have one. However, at least they weren’t the only ones to get upset by the Knicks. New York also beat the Pacers and Hawks to reach the NBA Finals.


8. Grizzlies over Spurs (First Round, 2011)

8 memphis grizzlies san antonio spurs 2011 - biggest nba playoff upsets

Now here’s a shocking #8 vs. #1 upset. It was the fifth time the feat had ever been accomplished, but just the second time since the advent of the seven-game first round series.

In 2010-11, the San Antonio Spurs had the second-best record in the NBA were looking like they might win their fourth championship in nine years. The Memphis Grizzlies, meanwhile, were a decent 46-36, but they didn’t seem to have any hope against their first round opponent.

Of course, there’s a good reason why they actually make teams play the games. The Grizzlies beat the Spurs in six games, giving Tim Duncan and company an early vacation.


7. Warriors over Bullets (Finals, 1975)

5 warriors bullets 1975 - biggest nba playoff upsets

At #7 we have our first big NBA Finals upset. The Golden State Warriors won the Pacific Division in 1974-75 and were the #1 seed in the Western Conference. However, the Western Conference was inferior to the Eastern Conference, and the Warriors record was just 48-34. After the Washington Bullets (60-22) knocked off the Boston Celtics (60-22) in the East Finals, everyone thought they were a lock for their first title. Then Rick Barry and the Warriors swept them in four close games. Oops.


6. Bullets over Spurs and 76ers (1978)


The Bullets got revenge for their upset loss in the 1975 NBA Finals by pulling off an even bigger upset—actually, make that series of upsets—in 1978. That year Washington was not the elite team that they were when they lost to the Warriors. They finished the regular season with a good but not great record of 44-38, which put them third in the East. However, the Bullets upset the #2 Spurs (52-30) and #1 Sixers (55-27) to reach the finals. There they faced the Sonics, who had just pulled off an upset of their own against the 58-win Trailblazers. And in the battle of the NBA Cinderellas, Washington came out on top.


5. Suns over Warriors (Western Conference Finals, 1976)

2 sunderella_suns - biggest nba playoff upsets

The Warriors followed up their “upset” victory in the NBA Finals in 1975 with a strong 1975-76 season in which they had the league’s best record at 59-23. The Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, were just 42-40 that year and supposedly had no chance against the Warriors after beating the similarly mediocre Sonics in their first series. However, Paul Westphal and rookie Alvan Adams led the way and the Suns pulled off the second-greatest playoff upset in NBA history in a thrilling seven-game series.


4. Kings over Suns (Second Round, 1981)

3 kansas city kings phoenix suns 1981 - biggest nba playoff upsets

Now we’re getting into epic upset territory. At #4 we have the Kings over the Suns in 1981—the same year that the Rockets bounced the Lakers in the first round. The Kings, who were playing in Kansas City at the time, were two games below .500 at 40-42. The Phoenix Suns, meanwhile, were 57-25 and the #1 seed in the Western Conference. With the Kings missing key players like Otis Birdsong due to injuries, they were supposed to succumb quickly to Truck Robinson and the Suns. However, they got out to a surprising 3-1 series lead and held on to win the series in a deciding game seven.


3. Warriors over Mavericks (First Round, 2007)


The 2011 Grizzlies became the second #8 team to beat a #1 team in a best-of-seven series. The 2007 Warriors were the first. Golden State barely made the playoffs in 2007 with a record of 42-40, and it was the franchise’s first postseason appearance in 13 years. Then, somehow, Golden State managed to beat the Dallas Mavericks, who had a record of 67-15 and were the NBA’s best team by a mile.

Maybe it was karma or something. After all, Warriors coach Don Nelson had been fired by Mark Cuban just two years earlier.


2. Nuggets over Sonics (First Round, 1994)

6 dikembe mutumbo 1994 nuggets upset sonics - biggest nba playoff upsets

The 1993-94 Denver Nuggets were the first ever #8 seed to beat a #1 seed in the first round of the NBA playoffs, and they did it in style. Denver, you see, was just 42-40 on the season, while their first round opponent, the Seattle Supersonics, were an NBA-best 63-19. However, it turned out that Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton were no match for the sultan of swat, Dikembe Mutumbo, who had 31 blocks in the five-game upset.


1. Sonics over Mavericks (First Round, 1987)

1 xavier mcdaniel vs james worthy 1987 - biggest nba playoff upsets

The ’78 Sonics pulled off a pretty big upset over the Trailblazers, but that was nothing compared to what the ’87 Sonics did against the Mavericks. Seattle was a terrible 39-43 in 1986-87, while Dallas was 55-27. Sure, it was only a matchup of #7 vs. #2, but the win differential between these teams was a whopping 16 games. There was no way the Sonics should have beat the Mavericks. But they did, three games to one.