NBA Finals: Top 7 Upsets In NBA Finals History

Use your ← → (arrows) to browse


The 2014 NBA Finals begin Thursday night in San Antonio.

The 2014 NBA Finals begin Thursday night in San Antonio.

For each round of the playoffs, HoopsHabit has taken a ride in the wayback machine to examine some of the biggest upsets in the history of the NBA Playoffs, including the first round, conference semifinals and conference finals.

The series concludes with the seven biggest upsets in the NBA Finals. Why seven? For starters, it’s a smaller pool to choose from than the earlier rounds—for as long as the NBA has been around, there are only 65 Finals on record.

Plus, last year’s thrilling Miami Heat-San Antonio Spurs battle went the full seven games—the first Finals to go the distance since the Lakers and Celtics in 2010 and just the third time in the 21st century (Detroit and San Antonio in 2005 was the other).

With that, here are the seven biggest NBA Finals upsets:

Use your ← → (arrows) to browse

Tags: Boston Celtics Chicago Bulls Golden State Warriors Houston Rockets Miami Heat Nba Finals Philadelphia Warriors Popular St. Louis Hawks

  • Luddite4Change

    What about the 1977 Portland Trailblazers and Philly 76ers, and their come back from a 0-2 series start?

    • Phil Watson

      It was a nice comeback, but not a particularly great upset. The Blazers had the league MVP in BIll Walton and won 49 games in 1976-77. Philadelphia had Julius Erving and won 50 games. The teams were really evenly matched.

      • Luddite4Change

        True, but Portland had gone 14-16 from 1 FEB to the end of the season, which really served to tamp down expectations going in to the playoffs, they were at the time considered a major underdog to the 76ers who had put up the second best record (20-14 down the stretch.

        • Phil Watson

          Fair point, and one I considered when putting the list together. But it sort of got negated by the Blazers sweeping the top-seeded and odds-on favorites in the Lakers in the conference finals.

          • Luddite4Change

            Fair point, but by that same logic Houston-Orlando should probably come off the list as Houston had knocked off teams with three of the top four records by the time they entered the finals. Orlando made it 4 for 4 I believe.

          • Joe Kidd

            “Orlando made it 4 for 4 I believe.”

            Yes, although Seattle tied Orlando with 57 wins that year.

  • Joe Kidd

    I can’t see the Bulls over the Suns in 1993 as an upset of any kind, let alone a major one. Chicago had won the previous two championships, possessed arguably the best player in history in Jordan, and had just won four straight games over a 60-win New York team in the Eastern Conference Finals. In fact, the Bulls had gone 11-2 in the 1993 Eastern Conference Playoffs. Sure, the Suns had won the most games in the league that season and Barkley had received the MVP Award, but most everyone knew that the Suns couldn’t defend quite as well as Chicago, and that Barkley wasn’t quite Jordan. Moreover, while the Suns were loaded with offensive talent (six past, present, or future All-Stars), they only possessed one player with NBA Finals experience (Danny Ainge) and a rookie head coach in Paul Westphal. That difference in experience was probably enough to give Chicago the edge. Frankly, I think that the upset would have been Jordan and the Bulls losing, especially since Chicago (second, 6.7) finished slightly ahead of Phoenix (fourth, 6.3) that season in Schedule-Adjusted (net) Offensive and Defensive Ratings.

    In fairness, this exercise is difficult, for I don’t know that “upsets” really occur in the NBA Finals. Even that 1947 series (great history, by the way) is a little tainted as an “upset” by Philadelphia receiving the home-court advantage. The closest results to meeting that criteria in more of a modern context would probably be the 1969 Finals and the 1975 Finals, but even in 1969, the Celtics were still the defending champions, much like the 1995 Rockets.

    A pure “upset,” in my opinion, would have been the Suns over the Celtics in 1976, or the Rockets over the Celtics in 1981, or the Rockets over the Celtics in 1986, or the Sonics over the Bulls in 1996, or the Knicks over the Spurs in 1999, or the Pacers over the Lakers in 2000, or the Sixers over the Lakers in 2001, or the Nets over the Lakers in 2002, or the Nets over the Spurs in 2003, or the Cavaliers over the Spurs in 2007, or the Magic over the Lakers in 2009. But of course, none of those results took place. The Warriors over the Bullets may have represented that kind of series, but then again, Golden State ranked second in Offensive Rating (points scored per 100 possessions) and fifth in Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions), so the Warriors may have been better than their record indicated. And if I were forced to pick a couple of series as upsets, I would suggest the Pistons over the Lakers in 2004 and the Mavericks over the Heat in 2011. After seeing the teams compete on the floor in the 2004 Finals, Detroit was clearly superior to Los Angeles, but heading into the series, the star-studded Lakers constituted the clear favorites. And the Mavericks over LeBron James and the Heat in 2011 may have represented more of an upset than the Heat over the Mavericks five years earlier.

  • Joe Kidd

    By the way, O’Neal left Orlando following the 1996 season.

    • Phil Watson

      You’re absolutely right. Typo on my part that has been corrected.

      • Joe Kidd

        Also, the Mavericks defeated the Spurs in the 2006 conference semifinals, not the conference finals. Of course, that matchup should have occurred in the conference finals and might as well have been the conference finals, but technically, it came in the conference semifinals. Needless to say, though, your point is correct: finally besting San Antonio in the playoffs constituted a big deal for Dallas.

        • Phil Watson

          Two corrections in one piece. Not good. Noted and fixed.