The Most Surprising Playoff Upsets in NBA History
The NBA playoffs are where legends are made and dreams are realized. While the postseason often unfolds according to predictions, sometimes the underdogs rise to the occasion and shock the world. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most surprising playoff upsets in NBA history.
1994: Denver Nuggets (8) vs. Seattle SuperSonics (1)
- The 1994 first-round matchup between the Denver Nuggets and the Seattle SuperSonics remains one of the most significant upsets in NBA playoff history. The heavily favored SuperSonics, led by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, seemed destined for a deep playoff run. However, Dikembe Mutombo and the scrappy Nuggets had other plans. Denver overcame a 2-0 series deficit to win the best-of-five series 3-2, making them the first eighth seed to defeat a first seed in NBA history.
2011: Dallas Mavericks (3) vs. Miami Heat (2)
- The 2011 NBA Finals featured an unexpected outcome, as the underdog Dallas Mavericks defeated the Miami Heat, a team featuring the “Big Three” of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Dirk Nowitzki led the Mavericks to victory, earning Finals MVP honors for his exceptional performance. The series showcased the power of teamwork, as Dallas outplayed the heavily favored Heat in six games.
2007: Golden State Warriors (8) vs. Dallas Mavericks (1)
- The “We Believe” Warriors, led by Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson, pulled off a stunning upset in the first round of the 2007 playoffs. The 67-win Dallas Mavericks, featuring MVP Dirk Nowitzki, were the favorites to win it all. However, Golden State’s small-ball lineup and relentless energy proved too much for the Mavericks. The Warriors won the series 4-2, becoming the first eighth seed to defeat a first seed in a best-of-seven series.
1999: New York Knicks (8) vs. Miami Heat (1)
- The 1999 NBA playoffs featured a memorable upset when the eighth-seeded New York Knicks defeated the top-seeded Miami Heat in the first round. The Knicks, led by Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell, won the series 3-2 in a dramatic, down-to-the-wire Game 5. This victory marked the second time an eighth seed defeated a first seed, and the Knicks went on to become the first eighth seed to reach the NBA Finals.
2012: Philadelphia 76ers (8) vs. Chicago Bulls (1)
- The 2012 first-round matchup between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Chicago Bulls produced another surprising upset. The Bulls were the top seed in the Eastern Conference, led by reigning MVP Derrick Rose. However, when Rose went down with a devastating ACL injury in Game 1, the series took a dramatic turn. The 76ers capitalized on the Bulls’ misfortune and won the series 4-2, advancing to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
2010: San Antonio Spurs (7) vs. Dallas Mavericks (2)
- The 2010 first-round series between the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks was a classic Texas showdown. The Mavericks, led by Dirk Nowitzki, were the second seed in the Western Conference and were favored to advance. However, the experienced Spurs, led by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginóbili, outplayed the Mavericks, winning the series 4-2. The upset showcased the Spurs’ unwavering determination and ability to perform in high-pressure situations.
1995: Houston Rockets (6) vs. Orlando Magic (1)
- The 1995 NBA Finals featured the defending champion Houston Rockets, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, and the up-and-coming Orlando Magic, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. Despite being the underdogs, the Rockets proved their championship mettle by sweeping the Magic in four games. The Rockets became the lowest-seeded team to win an NBA championship, solidifying their legacy as a dominant force in the mid-’90s.
1981: Kansas City Kings (6) vs. Phoenix Suns (3)
- In the 1981 Western Conference Semifinals, the sixth-seeded Kansas City Kings faced off against the third-seeded Phoenix Suns. Despite being underdogs, the Kings, led by Otis Birdsong and Scott Wedman, managed to defeat the Suns in a thrilling seven-game series. The Kings advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, showcasing their resilience and grit.
1987: Seattle SuperSonics (7) vs. Dallas Mavericks (2)
- The 1987 first-round series between the seventh-seeded Seattle SuperSonics and the second-seeded Dallas Mavericks produced a memorable upset. The Mavericks, featuring Mark Aguirre and Rolando Blackman, were expected to make a deep playoff run. However, the SuperSonics, led by Tom Chambers and Dale Ellis, had other plans. Seattle defeated the Mavericks in four games, proving that regular-season success doesn’t always translate to playoff dominance.
2009: Orlando Magic (3) vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (1)
- The 2009 Eastern Conference Finals saw the third-seeded Orlando Magic take on the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs, led by LeBron James, were heavily favored to advance to the NBA Finals. However, Dwight Howard and the Magic proved to be a matchup nightmare for the Cavaliers, winning the series 4-2. The Magic’s upset victory showcased the importance of matchups and team chemistry in the NBA playoffs.
These incredible upsets serve as a reminder that anything can happen in the NBA playoffs. Underdog teams, through hard work, determination, and a bit of luck, can overcome the odds and make history. These unforgettable moments have left an indelible mark on NBA playoff lore, proving that no team should ever be counted out.