Any team can beat any other team on any given day. That’s just the way sports works. By that logic, one game is difficult to really call an upset. That’s why this list is only looking at playoff series.
In the NBA, advancing in the playoffs means you have to beat your opponent at least three out of five times. Can you be the better team more often than your opposition? That’s what makes these upsets mean so much. A team that dominated the regular season can suddenly run into trouble against a team they’re supposed to handily beat.
That’s the case with these five upsets, which we believe are the greatest in the history of the NBA.
5. Dirk Beats The Big Three – 2011 NBA Finals
“Not four. Not five. Not six.”
When LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in South Beach in 2010, they rubbed everyone the wrong way. Not only was this a superteam of All-Stars, but they were incredibly arrogant before having won anything. Though the year started rough, the team righted the ship and cruised to the NBA Finals, beating each opponent in a mere five games. They were matched up against a Dallas Mavericks team that was filled with aging veterans making their last stands.
Miami was supposed to breeze to a title. Instead, Dirk Nowitzki put on a performance for the ages. Along with clutch efforts from vets like Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Tyson Chandler, and Shawn Marion, he led Dallas to an incredible championship victory. They exposed the holes in that Miami team. It helped that James had the worst Finals of his career, averaging a mere 17.8 points per game. Nowitzki avenged a 2006 loss in the Finals to Miami and is the last guy to win an NBA Title as his team’s lone superstar. And he did it by beating three of them.
4. Memphis Stuns San Antonio – 2011 First Round
The Dallas Mavericks weren’t the only team to pull off an upset in 2011. Right at the start, the Memphis Grizzlies did something almost nobody expected. They beat the San Antonio Spurs.
There’s a lot to consider here. First, the Spurs were the No. 1 seed and won 61 games that season. At that point, it was the third most wins in franchise history. Second, the Grizzlies were the No. 8 seed, having won 46 games. Even more than those numbers was history. The Spurs had Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, and they’d won NBA Titles in 1999, 2003, 2005, and 2007. The Grizzlies? They had never even won a playoff game, going 0-12 in their history coming into this series.
Led by the emergence of Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies stunned the Spurs. They took game one behind a clutch three pointer from Shane Battier and never looked back. They were more athletic, quicker, and proved to be a matchup nightmare for San Antonio. The Grizzlies eliminated the Spurs in a wild six game series.
3. The Mile High Comeback – 1994 First Round
Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Kendall Gill, Sam Perkins. Detlef Schrempf. The 1994 Seattle SuperSonics were loaded.
With a fantastic 63-19 record, those Sonics nabbed the top seed in the Western Conference. Many had them pegged as a favorite to win the NBA Championship with Michael Jordan having just retired. The door was open. Their first victim was supposed to be the No. 8 seed Denver Nuggets, who only went 42-40 that season.
The inexperienced Nuggets quickly fell behind 0-2 in the series and were beaten by double digits both times. But, as soon as the series shifted to Denver, things changed. The young guys pulled together and won both home games, forcing an unexpected game five. Led by Dikembe Mutombo and Robert Pack, Denver had a late lead. Gill sent that game into overtime, but Seattle couldn’t close it out. Denver won 98-94, becoming the first No. 8 to ever beat a No. 1.
2. Detroit Crushes The Lakers’ Dynasty – 2004 NBA Finals
Long before the Miami Heat and the Golden State Warriors were loaded with stars, there was the 2004 Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers won it all in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Their 2003 loss sent them shopping and they acquired future Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone to join Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Though the season was rocky, the Lakers were expected to walk away as champions again. That was especially the prediction when they matched up against the Detroit Pistons.
Detroit acquired Rasheed Wallace at the trade deadline. He wasn’t a superstar but he joined a core that included Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, and Richard Hamilton. These Pistons were suffocating on the defensive end. They held teams to just around 80 points per game in the Playoffs, including giving up only 56 in an earlier series opener. They kept the high powered Lakers to just 75 in game one before Bryant sank a clutch basket to lead Los Angeles to tie the series. It almost didn’t matter. Detroit dominated the next three games en route to a championship that was never supposed to happen.
1. We Believe – 2007 First Round
It sounds crazy now, but the Golden State Warriors were once the underdogs. And in a big way.
In 2007, the Warriors won 42 games and clinched the final Playoff spot on the last day of the season. Their reward? A meeting with the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks, who dominated the entire season. Furthermore, Dallas was hot off the heels of a crushing loss in the 2006 NBA Finals. This was their year for redemption. Add in an MVP award for their star, Dirk Nowitzki, and everything was coming up Mavericks. Apparently, nobody told the Warriors.
This was the definition of a matchup nightmare. Golden State had beaten Dallas in their previous five regular season meetings. They cruised to a win in game one in Dallas, but lost game two. In Oakland, this got truly memorable. The crowd sported “We Believe” shirts and were some of the rowdiest, loudest, and most raucous fans you’ll ever find. It made for an incredible atmosphere. The Warriors handily won game three by 18 points and took a 3-1 lead in game four. Dallas survived game five, but once back in Oakland, Golden State closed out the series with a dominant 111-86 victory. It was the first time a No. 8 seed beat a No. 1 in a best of seven series.