The biggest upsets in NBA playoff history
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The biggest upsets in NBA playoff history

Who doesn’t love a good upset? Well, fans of the team that got upset, sure. But everybody else tends to love an underdog coming out on top. When it happens over an entire playoff series, it’s even more surprising and more delightful. Here are some of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history.

 
1 of 20

The (Minneapolis) Lakers upset the (St. Louis) Hawks (1959)

The (Minneapolis) Lakers upset the (St. Louis) Hawks (1959)
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We’re starting with an old-school upset! The Hawks were looking to repeat, and with a 49-23 record they looked primed to do just that. A matchup with a 33-39 Lakers team didn’t seem all that threatening. And yet the team with the losing record took down the defending champs, thanks to winning the final three games of the series.

 
2 of 20

Boston gets one more over on L.A. (1969)

Boston gets one more over on L.A. (1969)
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The Lakers and Celtics had many great battles back in the day. By this point though, it seemed like Boston’s glory days were over. Bill Russell was now a player-coach, and the Celtics weren’t even the favorites to make it out of the East. Then they managed to upset both the Sixers and Knicks to match up with Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers. The series went to seven games, and Russell was able to grab one more ring.

 
3 of 20

Bullets over Broadway, and the Knicks (1971)

Bullets over Broadway, and the Knicks (1971)
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The Bullets were only 42-40 when they matched up with the 52-30 Knicks team in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, Baltimore was up to the task, taking down New York in seven games. Sure, the Bullets were swept in the NBA Finals, but this upset lives on.

 
4 of 20

The Blazers steal a title from Philly (1977)

The Blazers steal a title from Philly (1977)
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Upstart underdogs make good stories, but they rarely end up winning it all. The Cinderella Trail Blazers were a different story. They were a three seed in the West, and they were primed to lose to a formidable 76ers team. Portland lost the first two games of the series, and it seemed like Philly’s coronation was about to begin. Then the Blazers, led by Finals MVP Bill Walton, won four in a row.

 
5 of 20

Rockets surprise the Lakers (1981)

Rockets surprise the Lakers (1981)
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The Lakers had Kareem and Magic. (Those guys need only one name.) They were also the defending champions. Meanwhile, the Rockets had a losing record during the regular season. However, Houston took down Los Angeles in six games and actually made it to the Finals.

 
6 of 20

Nets best the Sixers (1984)

Nets best the Sixers (1984)
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The Sixers didn’t just win the title in 1983. They went 12-1 in the playoffs. Philly’s team in ’84 had Dr. J, not to mention Moses Malone and Maurice Cheeks. The Nets had never won a playoff game heading into this first-round series. That changed, as New Jersey took down Philly in a five-game series.

 
7 of 20

Rockets overtake the Lakers (1986)

Rockets overtake the Lakers (1986)
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This was a one-vs.-two matchup in the Western Conference Finals, but it’s still considered a major upset. The Lakers, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, won 62 games and were the clear favorites to win it all. However, they couldn’t get past a young Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets, who thwarted Los Angeles in a mere five games.

 
8 of 20

Warriors provide a road bump to Utah’s Stockton-and-Malone era (1989)

Warriors provide a road bump to Utah’s Stockton-and-Malone era (1989)
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We all like when an eight seed takes down a one seed, but how about some love for the seven seeds out there that have dropped two seeds? The Utah Jazz were in the early days of the dynamic duo of John Stockton and Karl Malone. Unfortunately for the Jazz, those two future Hall of Famers couldn’t stop the underdog Warriors from sweeping them in the first round.

 
9 of 20

The Suns set on the Lakers (1990)

The Suns set on the Lakers (1990)
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Los Angeles was a formidable team. It posted a 63-19 record, and Magic Johnson won the MVP. The Lakers had also made the Western Conference Finals every season since 1981. That ended this year, as the fifth-seeded Suns upended the Lakers.

 
10 of 20

Nuggets make history against the Sonics (1994)

Nuggets make history against the Sonics (1994)
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You’ve probably seen that image of Dikembe Mutombo lying on the court clutching the ball. That came after the Nuggets took down the Sonics in a best-of-five series in which they had fallen behind two games to none. This was the first time an eight seed had ever defeated a one seed.

 
11 of 20

Knicks turn down the Heat (1999)

Knicks turn down the Heat (1999)
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The 1999 season was weird because of the lockout. Nevertheless, when an eight seed beats a one seed, it’s always notable. That’s what happened here when the Knicks upset the Heat. In fact, New York went all the way to the NBA Finals, losing to the Spurs.

 
12 of 20

Hornets drop the Heat (2001)

Hornets drop the Heat (2001)
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This was a three-vs.-six matchup but one that was tilted quite in the favor of the Heat on paper. They had won 50 games, and they were a veteran team taking on an upset-minded Hornets squad led by a young Baron Davis. Not only did Charlotte pull off the upset, but they also swept the Heat in the first round.

 
13 of 20

Pistons vanquish the Lakers (2004)

Pistons vanquish the Lakers (2004)
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The Lakers had added Karl Malone and Gary Payton prior to this season to try and take an already talented team to the next level. With Kobe and Shaq on the roster, L.A. had four future Hall of Famers. Detroit, meanwhile, had no stars, but it did have a strong starting five who played well together. That worked in the Finals, as the Pistons took down the Lakers in five games, basically ending the Shaq-and-Kobe era.

 
14 of 20

The Warriors believe against the Mavericks (2007)

The Warriors believe against the Mavericks (2007)
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It’s weird to remember a time when the Warriors were underdogs. That was certainly the case in 2007. Dallas had won 67 games, while Golden State had won 42. These were the “we believe” Warriors, though. Dirk Nowitzki may have been the MVP during the regular season, but Baron Davis and Co. took down the Mavs in six games in what some consider the biggest upset in NBA playoff history.

 
15 of 20

Magic over the Cavaliers (2009)

Magic over the Cavaliers (2009)
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LeBron had clearly marked himself as the best player in the NBA, and the Cavaliers were rolling through the playoffs. As the top seed, they had swept through the first two rounds. Then they ran into Dwight Howard and the Magic. Orlando pulled off the upset in six games, and James probably started to wonder about his time in Cleveland at that point.

 
16 of 20

Celtics end LeBron’s time in Cleveland (2010)

Celtics end LeBron’s time in Cleveland (2010)
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LeBron’s time in Cleveland, at least for his first go round, ended fairly ignominiously. The Cavaliers didn’t make it to the NBA Finals — or even the Eastern Conference Finals. Instead, the Celtics took down the 61-win Cavs in the second round.

 
17 of 20

Grizzlies upend the Spurs (2011)

Grizzlies upend the Spurs (2011)
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This was when “Grit N’ Grind” became a movement. The Spurs were a practical dynasty at this time. Do you think Zach Randolph was scared? Memphis dropped San Antonio in six games. The Grizz were actually the first eight seed to beat a one seed after the NBA moved to a best-of-seven format in the first round.

 
18 of 20

The Hawks expose the Magic (2011)

The Hawks expose the Magic (2011)
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A five seed over a four seed? Is that really an upset? Well, according to some advanced metrics, this is one of the bigger upsets ever. Dwight Howard and the Magic went down in six games to the Hawks, thanks largely to some cold shooting by Orlando from beyond the arc.

 
19 of 20

Mavs take down LeBron’s Heat (2011)

Mavs take down LeBron’s Heat (2011)
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This was the year after "The Decision," when James opted to take his talents to South Beach. He promised title after title, and the Heat managed to make the NBA Finals in his first season, as LeBron teamed Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. However, they couldn’t get over that final hump. Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks pulled off the championship upset, much to the joy of many impartial fans.


 
20 of 20

Sixers end an era for the Bulls (2012)

Sixers end an era for the Bulls (2012)
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There’s a caveat to this one, as the top-seeded Bulls lost Derrick Rose to an injury in Game 1. Without its star player, Chicago was a different team. Still, this was an eight seed beating a one seed, so it was still a big upset.

Chris Morgan is a sports and pop culture writer and the author of the books The Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Ash Heap of History. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisXMorgan.

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