With the NBA playoffs nearing the Conference Finals, most of the series’ outcomes have been as expected. There certainly haven’t been any upsets from the likes, seen as recently as the Miami Heat’s run to the Finals last year in the bubble.
The postseason always gives the underdog an opportunity. They have a seven-game series with which to topple a tougher opponent with at least two home games guaranteed. In this article, we will look back over the years in the NBA and pick out some of the greatest playoff upsets of all time.
Counting down 10 of the greatest upsets in NBA playoff history
Although it is usually expected that a team with home court advantage or with superior stars should win an NBA playoff series, it doesn’t always work out that way. Often times, the favored team struggles under pressure while the underdogs have less to lose and so can play with relative freedom. That was the case for most of our examples in this list.
#10 Miami Heat vs Milwaukee Bucks, 2020
The Miami Heat surprised the basketball world when they made it all the way to the NBA Finals in the 2020 bubble. On their way there, they demolished the Milwaukee Bucks in a five-game series, bettering their opponents in every facet of the game.
With MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks were the clear favorites to win the series. They finished the regular season campaign with the best record in the league and 12 games ahead of the Heat. Following a rigorous game plan and stifling defense, Miami held the Bucks to under 105 points in three of their matches and advanced as comfortable victors.
#9 Chicago Bulls vs Cleveland Cavaliers, 1989
It was some time before Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls became the dominant favorites in every playoff series they played. Jordan had to help lead his team past the physicality of the Cavaliers. In six matchups during the regular season campaign, the Bulls failed to beat the Cavs, with Cleveland finishing the season with 60 wins and the NBA’s best record.
As with many opponents, though, the Cavaliers had no answer to Jordan’s postseason ability. In the five-game series, he averaged 39.8 points per game and hit the decisive, series-winning shot in game 5 in Cleveland. Later becoming known as ‘The shot’, Jordan hit the buzzer beater with seconds to go and took his NBA stardom to another level.
#8 Houston Rockets vs LA Lakers, 1981
Prior to the present-day, 16-team format in the NBA playoffs, there were still multiple upsets in the postseason. One of which came in 1981, with the Houston Rockets, who caused a surprise by overcoming reigning champion LA Lakers.
The Lakers at the time were led by future Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson. They were defending their 1980 championship crown. However, they were toppled in a three-game series 2-1 by the Rockets and fellow great Moses Malone. Not only had they toppled the heavy favorites, it was a surprise Houston had even made the postseason after barely scraping in on a 40-42 record.
#7 Cleveland Cavaliers vs Toronto Raptors, 2018
The Toronto Raptors were certainly happy to see the back of LeBron James when he left the NBA’s Eastern Conference in 2018. At the culmination of the 2017-18 season, the Raptors were comfortably the best team in the East. They had a record of 59-23, while the Cavs finished nine games behind in fourth seed.
After struggling past the Indiana Pacers, the two teams met in the playoff semifinals. It was not the Cavs of 2016 though, they did not have Kyrie Irving to run the offense. Instead, they relied on James’ excellence and their perimeter scorers, who the Raptors had no answer for in this series.
LeBron averaged 34 points across four games in which the Cavs embarrassed their opponents. Cleveland’s shooting was electric, with the likes of Kevin Love and Kyle Korver providing significant scoring beyond their leader. For Toronto, at least, the sweep paved the way for a turnover in personnel, with Kawhi Leonard coming in and leading them to an NBA championship. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers themselves got swept in the 2018 Finals.