How the Giants Fall
Reading Time: 7 minutes
2020’s NBA playoffs might be the craziest we’ve seen yet. With no in-person fans cheering in the stands, no teams traveling from city to city for games, and most importantly, no home-court advantage, the unorthodox structure of this year’s postseason is nothing like we’ve ever seen before. Despite all these changes, one exciting element of playoff basketball remains: upsets. This volatility of the playoffs was evident from the very beginning of this year’s postseason, as the eighth-seeded Magic and Blazers both took down their top-seeded opponents, the Bucks and the Lakers, respectively, in game one of their first round series. This was just the second time in NBA history that both bottom seeds beat their top-seeded adversaries in game one, reminding fans of the thrilling unpredictability the playoffs offer. We may be in store for some unexpected results this year, so before any more brackets get busted, let’s look back at some of the greatest playoff upsets in recent NBA history.
Warriors (8) beat Mavericks (1)
Series Outcome: 4-2
Entering the playoffs with a regular season record of 67-15, the 2007 Dallas Mavericks, led by league MVP Dirk Nowitzki, had their sights on winning the NBA championship. It would have been a perfect redemption story for the Mavericks, who were coming off of a crushing finals defeat to the Miami Heat the previous year. Facing them in the first round were the “We Believe” Golden State Warriors led by point guard Baron Davis, small forward Stephen Jackson, and shooting guard Jason Richardson. Despite the Warriors’ unique playing style that flustered the Mavericks during all three of their regular season matchups, the experienced Dallas team was still the heavy favorite entering the series. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Warriors dominated game one, shocking the Mavs in a 97-85 victory. The game one result proved to be no fluke, and throughout the series, Dallas had no answer to Golden State’s talented trio, as Davis, Jackson, and Richardson averaged a whopping total of 67 combined points per game. In contrast, Nowitzki scored below 20 points per game on under 40 percent shooting from the field, a noticeable dropoff from the MVP numbers he put up in the regular season. With their star player underperforming, the Mavericks struggled to gain any real momentum, and the Warriors moved onto the second round after a blowout in game six that displayed Golden State’s grit and championship mentality.
Grizzlies (8) beat Spurs (1)
Series Outcome: 4-2
Heading into the 2011 playoffs, all eyes were on the new look Miami Heat and its big three: small forward LeBron James, shooting guard Dwyane Wade, and power forward Chris Bosh. Deemed a superteam, the Heat were the clear title favorite, and it was widely believed that only a few other teams in the league had the skill, tenacity, and experience necessary to beat the “Heatles.” Among these contenders were the San Antonio Spurs, a veteran squad boasting their own big three of power forward Tim Duncan, shooting guard Manu Ginóbili, and point guard Tony Parker. As the top seed in the West, the Spurs were expected to reach the NBA finals. However, they fell far short of their expectations, falling to the eighth seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. The Grizzlies, at the time, hadn’t won a postseason game in franchise history and were making their first playoff appearance in half a decade. Needless to say, many viewed the first round matchup as nothing more than a stepping stone for the Spurs. However, the Grizzlies proved more than capable of keeping up with San Antonio, winning game one by three points and eventually going on to convincingly win the series in a shocking 4-2 upset. Memphis big men Marc Gasol and Zack Randolph were crucial to Memphis’s success, as Gasol averaged a double double and Randolph put up an impressive 21.5 points and 9.2 rebounds throughout the series. This playoff series went down in history as one of the greatest upsets the NBA has ever seen, as not only was it an eight seed over one seed upset, but also a relatively new franchise toppling one of the most established and successful teams in league history.
Pistons (3) beat Lakers (2)
Series Outcome: 4-1
A team of superstars versus a team of role players. This matchup is how many fans and analysts viewed the 2004 NBA finals, which showcased a clash between two teams of starkly contrasting styles. From the West were the Los Angeles Lakers, a talented squad led by legendary duo Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, along with legendary veterans Gary Payton and Karl Malone. The Eastern Conference champions were the Detroit Pistons, a defensive-minded team with a core of Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace. Though the Pistons had a solid lineup, it consisted mainly of inexperienced players and journeymen, and many thought that Detroit lacked the offensive firepower necessary to beat L.A. However, it turns out that the Lakers would be the ones to struggle on offense, as the Pistons outscored L.A by a total of 45 points over their five game series. On defense, Detroit limited L.A’s role players and guarded Bryant and O’Neal straight up, refusing to double-team. As a result, the rest of the Lakers roster totaled for a substandard 32.6 points per game. With their lack of depth exposed, the Lakers relied heavily on their superstar duo to carry the load of the offense. On the other hand, the Pistons utilized a balanced offense and brought the city of Detroit their third championship in franchise history.
Nuggets (8) beat Supersonics (1)
Series Outcome: 3-2
During the three year span from 1991 to 1993, the Chicago Bulls, anchored by Michael Jordan, had dominated the NBA, winning three straight championships and vanquishing any hope other teams had of winning a title. So when Jordan shockingly announced his (first) retirement after the ’93 NBA season, teams around the league finally saw an opportunity to replace the Jordan-era Bulls at the top of the NBA pecking order and win a ring. The Seattle Supersonics, led by future Hall-of-Famer Gary Payton and All-Star Shawn Kemp, appeared to be the new top dogs, as they finished with the best regular season record in the league at 63-19. Dubbed the favorites for the title, the Supersonics entered the first round of the playoffs with overflowing confidence, certain that they were the best team in the NBA. For the first two games of round one, it seemed that way, as the Sonics coasted past the eighth-seeded Denver Nuggets, winning by double-digits in both matches. When the series shifted over to Denver for game three, everyone expected the Sonics to easily take care of business on the road. But the third game told a vastly different story—a story in which the Nuggets would come back in a valiant team effort to blow out the Sonics at home. Their momentum would carry into game four, where in an overtime thriller, Denver would come out on top, as power forward LaPhonso Ellis posted an impressive 27-point, 17-rebound double-double. In game five, which also went into overtime, Nuggets big men Bison Dele and Dikembe Mutombo finished the job, contributing an impressive total of 25 points, 34 rebounds, and 9 blocks. The Nuggets' defense played a vital role in their victory, as Denver clamped the Sonics to under 100 points in every game except game one. It was the first time an eight seed beat a one seed in NBA history, and the Nuggets’ joy was exemplified by Mutombo, as he secured the final rebound and rolled on the floor crying in one of the most iconic NBA photos ever taken.
Cavaliers (2) beat Warriors (1)
Series Outcome: 4-3
Of course, this list wouldn’t be complete without the 2016 NBA finals, which saw the top-seeded Golden State Warriors fall to the underdog Cleveland Cavaliers in one of the greatest sports series in history. There was no expectation for Cleveland to pull off the win over Golden State. Not at the end of the regular season, when the Warriors broke the ‘96 Bulls record with 73 regular season game wins. Not after game four, when the Warriors dismantled the Cavs and won by double-digits on Cleveland’s territory. And certainly not when the series shifted over to Golden State for game five, the Warriors with all the momentum. Never before in history had any team come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA finals. The only question on the minds of NBA fans was how long it would take for the Cavs to accept their fate. All Golden State had to do was win one of the four remaining games to claim the Larry O’Brien trophy, a picture-perfect ending to their historic season. Despite all the odds stacked against them, the Cavs managed to avoid elimination in game five, as James and Irving combined for 82 points. The series then turned back to Cleveland for game six, where, yet again, James showed up under immense pressure, scoring 41 points and forcing a game seven. In game seven, on the biggest stage in franchise history, the Cavs defeated the Warriors 93-89. James was crowned the Finals MVP, and cemented his legacy as one of the greats. After the game, he said, “I came back for a reason. I came back to bring a championship to our city.
The upsets examined above are just the tip of the iceberg. Ever since the National Basketball Association was founded in 1946, the league has seen countless scenarios similar to the five examined above. The erratic nature of the NBA is why bettors are willing to risk money to wager on the outcome of a game or series and why hopeful supporters still cheer for their favorite team, even in games where they stand little chance of winning. Most importantly, it's what keeps fans captivated at the edge of their seats. After all, what fun is there in watching a basketball game if you already know the results?