In recent years there’s been something of a vocal minority calling for the elimination (or at least shortening) of the first round of the NBA Playoffs due to a perceived lack of parity.
How quickly people forget the below upsets that shocked the basketball world and proved how unpredictable the NBA can be…
5) May 7, 1994: Nuggets 98, SuperSonics 94
If you think the first round is a waste of time now, try being a fan in the 1990s. Since expanding to the 16-team playoff format in 1984, no No. 8 seed had ever defeated a No. 1. The 1994 Denver Nuggets weren’t aware or that stat or just didn’t care. The Nugs finished the regular season a mere two games above .500, while their opponents the Seattle SuperSonics (RIP) had the league’s best record.
After falling behind 2-0 in the best-of-five series, Denver reeled off a 17-point win in Game 3 and a nine-point overtime victory in Game 4. That set up a decisive Game 5 in Seattle Center Coliseum that would also need overtime to be settled. Behind a Reggie Williams double-double and vintage Dikembe Mutombo dominance, Denver eked out the historic win, 98-94.
4) June 7, 1995: Rockets 113, Magic 101
NBA Finals matchups are usually considered to be pretty even. But back in 1995, only one team was getting all the love, and it wasn’t the aging and No. 5 seed in the West, the Houston Rockets. Instead the attention and favorable odds were going to the Orlando Magic, the No. 1 seed in the East. The Magic were the darlings of the league and had defeated Boston, Pippen’s Bulls, and Reggie’s Pacers to earn their place in the Finals.
But despite having the veteran experience of then-three-time NBA Champion Horace Grant on their side, Orlando’s perceived benefit, their youth (O’Neal and Hardaway), proved to be their Achilles heel. Late in Game 1, the Magic held a three-point lead, but Nick Anderson somehow missed four straight free throws down the stretch. Houston tied the game, eventually won, and shocked the world by sweeping Orlando 4-0…
3) April 29, 2007: Warriors 111, Mavericks 86
In 2007, the Warriors ended a 13-year playoff drought and made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, but drew the heavily-favored Mavericks. Baron Davis dropped 33 points on Dallas in Game 1 to lead Golden State to a win, and the series went back and forth with the Warriors taking a 3-2 lead into Game 6.
Dallas was in total control throughout the game, but an 18-0 third quarter run by the Warriors — including seven three pointers from Stephen Jackson — sealed the Mavs’ fate. It was the first time a No. 8 seed won a best-of-seven series in NBA Playoff history.
2) April 17, 2011: Grizzlies 101, Spurs 98
Although it had been a whopping *gasp* four years since San Antonio last won an NBA Championship, the Spurs were still expected to handily defeat the upstart Memphis Grizzlies in Round 1 of the 2011 Playoffs. Instead, the young Memphis team punched the Spurs in the mouth from the start.
With less than three minutes left in Game 1, it looked like San Antonio were going to dodge a close call and presumably cruise through the rest of the series, but four missed free throws allowed Shane Battier’s three-pointer with 23.9 seconds left to give Memphis the lead and their first playoff-game win ever. Behind a massive series performance from Zach Randolph (21.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game), the Griz went on to seal the upset in six.
1) June 19, 2016: Cavs 93, Warriors 89
Did you know that the Warriors blew a 3-1 series lead? Before the memes there were only pretty good odds that Golden State was going to finish off Cleveland in Game 5, with some online sportsbooks (where you can bet on every NBA game ever) listing the Cavs at odds as low as +202. Cleveland of course rewarded those bettors by winning by 15, pulling the series back to 3-2.
But against the odds again, they managed to win the next game by almost the same margin. But surely they couldn’t go out to the Oracle and win one more (the Cavs were still a Cleveland team after all). Game 7 was as close as expected, with 20 lead changes and 11 ties, but Golden State failed to make a field goal in the last 4:39 of the game, and after LeBron’s infamous block on Iguodala and Kyrie’s three over Steph, the Cavs had ended Cleveland’s curse and given internet trolls much to do during the off-season.