The 5 Greatest Upsets in NBA Playoff History

LeBron James argues with the referee.

LeBron James argues with the referee. | Elsa/Getty Images

Every team that has advanced to the postseason begins with a clean slate. That’s the beauty of the playoffs. If a team finds itself on a roll, or if a matchup works out in its favor, then anything is possible. This is the time of year when you better play your best ball. It doesn’t matter what’s happened so far this season; it doesn’t matter if you’re the league MVP or your team finished with the best record. The playoffs are when legends are born and history is made.

History has not always worked out for the best teams in the NBA. On occasion, the day may belong to the underdog. In a way, that’s when the sport becomes the most interesting. When teams come out of nowhere to topple the favorites, we’re reminded just how talented NBA players truly are. If you play in this league, then you’ve got skills. End of story.

And when these players rise to the occasion, we get to bear witness to David taking down Goliath. Here’s a look at the five greatest upsets in NBA playoff history.

5. The Grizzlies topple the Spurs (2011 Western Conference first round)

The Memphis Grizzlies entered their 2011 first-round contest against the San Antonio Spurs as the lowly No. 8 seed, but this proved to be irrelevant. Sometimes the most important thing in the postseason is a favorable matchup. That’s exactly the position the Grizzlies found themselves in.

Despite being the top team in the West, the Spurs proved no match for Memphis power forward Zach Randolph. Z-Bo averaged 21.5 points and 9.2 rebounds in the series, including a monster Game 6, in which he put up 31 points on 12 field goals. The Spurs showed their age against the upstart Grizzlies and wound up losing the series, 4-2.

4. LeBron can’t handle the Boston Celtics (2010 Eastern Conference semifinals)

Heading into the 2010 playoffs, the Cleveland Cavaliers boasted a 61-21 record and the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. And yet, most of the chatter revolved around where LeBron James would be playing the following season. Perhaps if the Cavs had won an NBA championship that year, James may have never bolted for Miami. Things didn’t play out that way.

Cleveland came up against a more experienced Boston Celtics team in the Eastern Conference semis and couldn’t stand up to the Big Three. Despite being up 2-1 after three games, the Cavaliers lost Games 4 to 6, and that was all she wrote for James’s first stint in Cleveland. The Cavs may have lost the series in six games, but given their superstar’s “performance” in Game 5, a Boston victory seemed almost inevitable.

3. The Detroit Pistons ruin the Hollywood ending (2004 NBA Finals)

When the Detroit Pistons and Los Angeles Lakers met in the 2004 NBA Finals, smart money suggested that the title would head back to tinseltown. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Besides getting 26.6 points per game from Shaquille O’Neal and 22.6 from Kobe Bryant, the Lakers were completely manhandled by the 21st century version of the “Bad Boys.” The Pistons were physically dominating, limiting LA to just 81.8 total points per game. This star-studded Los Angeles team simply fell short. Way short. Point guard Chauncey Billups would go on to win the Finals MVP, and Detroit would take the series 4-1.

2. The Denver Nuggets take down the No. 1 seed (1994 Western Conference first round)

Never before in the history of the NBA had a No. 8 seed taken down a No. 1 seed. That was until the Denver Nuggets played the Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the 1994 playoffs. The Sonics, who came into the postseason sporting a 63-19 record, would go up two games to none to start this best-0f-five series. They looked to be in complete control and appeared ready to sail smoothly into the next round. No one told the Nuggets that.

Behind 16 points per game from LaPhonso Ellis and 31 total blocks from Dikembe Mutombo, Denver would storm back to win the final three games and take the series, 3-2. With this monumental upset, we soon learned that anything was possible once the NBA Playoffs began.

1. The Warriors prove too strong for the Dallas Mavericks (2007 Western Conference first round)

The Dallas Mavericks finished the 2006-2007 regular season with a final record of 67-15. They were the best team in the Western Conference and appeared to be the team to beat in the NBA. When they got matched up against the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors, who squeaked into the playoffs with a 42-40 mark, no one was thinking upset. And then the Warriors’ Baron Davis went to work.

The 27-year-old torched the Mavs for 25 points per game, which included shooting 45.5% from three-point range. Golden State would outscore the Mavericks by almost seven points a contest in the series and lead them in offensive rating, 113.8 to 106.6. The Warriors won the series, 4-2, becoming the first No. 8 seed in history to defeat a No. 1 seed in a best-of-seven series. We’d say the Dubs have come a long way since then.

Statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.