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How Top Seeds Have Fared In NBA Playoffs

A look back at how the top NBA seeds have fared in the playoffs over the last decade.



Each year, we see teams dominate during the regular season. This season has been no different. The Warriors have thrived under first-year coach Steve Kerr and been the best team in the NBA. In the East, the Hawks have vaulted themselves to the top of the conference by playing tough defense and relying on team-first concepts on the offensive end. While Cleveland has come on strong as the season has progressed, the Hawks have a firm grip on the top seed in the East. Having the number one seed is certainly beneficial, but it’s no guarantee of a deep playoff run. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the top seeds have fared over the last 10 years.


Eastern Conference: Indiana Pacers

Despite landing the top seed in the East last season, the Pacers were pushed to seven games in their first round series with the Hawks. They narrowly advanced and faced the Wizards in round two. The Wizards took Game One of that series, but the Pacers bounced back winning the next three before closing the series in Game Six. Their playoff run would come to an end in the conference semi-finals against the HEAT. Indiana struggled to score as they were held under 95 points in all but one game during the series. Miami advanced in six games to face the Spurs in the Finals.

Western Conference: San Antonio Spurs

Like the Pacers, the Spurs were tested early on, needing seven games to overcome their in-state rival Dallas Mavericks in round one. In round two, they faced the Portland Trail Blazers, who were unable to put up much of a fight. The Spurs made quick work of the Blazers, winning their second round series in five games. They would meet Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder in the conference semi-finals. The Spurs knocked off the Thunder in six games, even with Durant and Westbrook both averaging over 25 points per game during the series. This meant we would see a Finals rematch; the Spurs would get another shot at the HEAT. They set tone in Game One, winning 110-95 and didn’t look back from there. The Spurs were dominant throughout the Finals and needed just five games to beat the HEAT.


Eastern Conference: Miami HEAT

The HEAT cruised through round one, sweeping the Bucks. They faced the Bulls in round two, a team that figured to be a more challenging opposition. However, without Derrick Rose, the Bulls were no match, falling to the HEAT in five games. The HEAT’s first real test came in round three against the Pacers. The Pacers battled the HEAT to seven games but were unable to finish the job, losing Game Seven, 99-76. They moved onto the Finals, matching up with the Spurs. The Spurs looked to be in control of the series right up until the last minute of regulation in Game Six. The HEAT were able overcome a five-point deficit with less than 30 seconds left in the fourth, keyed by a Ray Allen corner three, to send the game to overtime. The HEAT went on to win that game 103-100 before winning Game Seven, and their second title in two years.

Western Conference: Oklahoma City Thunder

In the West, the Thunder had a more difficult path to the Finals. In round one, they took care of business against former teammate James Harden and the Rockets, winning that series 4-2. Unfortunately, the Thunder lost star point guard Russell Westbrook to a knee injury in round one, which was a major blow to their championship hopes. Playing without Westbrook proved to be too much to overcome, as the Thunder fell to the Grizzlies in five games in round two.


Eastern Conference: Chicago Bulls

The Bulls landed the one seed in the East during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season after going 50-16. They faced the Philadelphia 76ers in round one. Sadly, with the Bulls leading late in Game One, Derrick Rose landed awkwardly, tearing his ACL. With Rose out, the Sixers were able to pull-off the rare eight-seed-over-one-seed upset, sending the Bulls home early.

Western Conference: San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs once again found themselves as the top seed in the West in 2012. For the first two rounds, they looked Finals’ bound. The Spurs swept the Jazz in the round one before doing the same to the Clippers in round two. Next they faced the Thunder in the conference finals. The trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden were able to knock off the veteran Spurs in six games as the Thunder advanced to the Finals. The Thunder would go on to lose to the HEAT.


Eastern Conference: Chicago Bulls

Led by MVP point guard Derrick Rose, the Bulls appeared have a real shot at making a title run. In round one, they needed just five games to oust the Pacers. The Bulls would move on to face the fifth-seeded Hawks. Rose was spectacular, averaging 29.8 points and 9.8 assists, as the Bulls cruised past the Hawks in round two – winning the series 4-2. In the conference finals, the Bulls met the HEAT and their infamous “Big Three.” The Bulls got off to a good start, winning Game One, however the talented HEAT were too much to handle as they won the next four games and advanced to the Finals. Behind the play of Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks defeated the HEAT 4-2 in the Finals.

Western Conference: San Antonio Spurs

To no one’s surprise, the Spurs were atop the Western Conference heading into the playoffs. They matched-up with the physical Grizzlies in round one. Memphis took Game One, 101-98, in San Antonio, but the Spurs bounced back winning the next two. The Grizzlies didn’t back down, winning three straight and taking the series, 4-2. The early exit had many questioning if the Spurs were getting too old to compete for a title. Those doubters would be silenced soon enough.


Eastern Conference: Cleveland Cavaliers

In what would turn out to be LeBron James’ last year in Cleveland before temporarily taking his talents South Beach, the Cavs looked poised to make a title run. In round one they had little trouble with the Bulls, winning that series 4-1. In round two, they met up with a hungry Celtics team. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were on a mission to win another NBA title. The Celtics’ three veteran stars were able to lead the team over the Cavs, winning the series in six games. The Celtics would go on to face the Lakers in the Finals.

Western Conference: Los Angeles Lakers

An experienced Lakers group faced off against the up and coming Thunder in round one. While the Thunder certainly had talent with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Jeff Green and Serge Ibaka, they were still very young. They put up a good fight, but the Lakers ultimately prevailed winning their first round series, 4-2. The Lakers were dominate in their round two match-up with the Jazz, sweeping Utah, 4-0. In the conference semi-finals, the Lakers faced Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns. In what was a highly competitive series, the Lakers moved on, winning the series in six games. The Finals renewed one of the oldest rivalries in the NBA as the Lakers took on the Celtics. In what was a terrific seven-game series, the Lakers won in seven games.


Eastern Conference: Cleveland Cavaliers

In 2008-09, LeBron James led the Cavaliers to a 66-16 record, looking like a near lock to win the Eastern Conference. They made quick work of the Pistons in round one and the Hawks in round two, sweeping both series. In the conference finals, the Cavs faced off with Dwight Howard and the Magic. Although James put up historical numbers, averaging 38.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8 assists, the Cavs fell short and lost the series, 4-2.

Western Conference: Los Angeles Lakers

Again, the Lakers were the cream of the crop in the West. They had no trouble in their first round series with the Jazz, advancing in five games. Their round two match-up with the Rockets was not nearly as easy. It took the Lakers seven games, but Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol were able to beat the Rockets. Following their series with Houston, the Lakers faced the Nuggets in the conference semi-finals. The Lakers took care of business, winning that series in six games. The Magic posed few problems for the Lakers in the Finals, as they coasted to a 4-1 series victory.


Eastern Conference: Boston Celtics

After struggling during the 2006-07 season, the Celtics made major changes bringing Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to play alongside, most notably, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. These moves paid immediate dividends. The Celtics won 66 games and landed the top seed in the East. While the Celtics looked great in the regular season, they were challenged in the playoffs. They needed seven games to advance past the Hawks in round one and again needed seven games in round two before defeating the Cavaliers. They knocked off the Pistons in the conference finals, 4-2, before facing the Lakers in the NBA finals. Allen, Pierce and Garnet were finally able to get that ring they had been chasing for so long, as the Celtics beat the Lakers 4-2 to take home the title.

Western Conference: Los Angeles Lakers

In 2008, Phil Jackson had the Lakers ready for another deep playoff run. They routed Nuggets in round one, sweeping the series 4-0. They faced slightly more resistance in round two against the Jazz but went on to win that series 4-2. Next, the Lakers met up with the three-seed Spurs. Again, the Lakers handled them relatively easily, needing only five games to win the series. In the Finals, the Lakers would meet a highly motivated Celtics team. The Lakers lost the first two games, falling behind in the series 0-2, and were never able to rebound eventually losing to the Celtics in six games.


Eastern Conference: Detroit Pistons

The Pistons dominated the Magic in round one, sweeping the series. In round two, they would take on the Bulls, who were confident as well after sweeping the HEAT. The Pistons stingy defense held the Bulls to 87.5 points per game during the series, and they went on to win 4-2. However, they were unable to slow down a young LeBron James, falling to the Cavaliers in the conference finals in six games.

Western Conference: Dallas Mavericks

Dallas faced one of the more difficult eight seed match-ups in recent memory, going up against the high powered Golden State Warriors. The Mavericks were unable to slow the Warriors’ up-tempo attack and were stunned in round one, losing the series 4-2. The Spurs would go on to win the title over the Cavs.


Eastern Conference: Detroit Pistons

Once again behind their tough defense, the Pistons landed the top seed in the East. They easily defeated the Bucks in round one, needing just five games to advance. LeBron James and the Cavaliers put up a valiant effort in round two, taking the Pistons to seven games before being held to 61 points in Game Seven as the Pistons moved on. Their run came to an end in the conference finals, losing 4-2 to the eventual NBA champion HEAT.

Western Conference: San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs went 63-19 on their way to the top of the West in 2006. They were able to get past the Kings in six games in round one, but faced a much tougher challenge in round two. The Mavericks took the Spurs to seven games and pulled off the upset in the conference semi-finals, defeating the Spurs 4-3.


Eastern Conference: Miami HEAT

With Dwyane Wade playing some of the best basketball of his career, the HEAT were a dangerous team in the East. The looked unstoppable in the first two rounds of the playoffs, sweeping the Nets and Wizards consecutively. However, they met their match in the conference finals against Pistons. The Pistons’ physical play slowed down the HEAT and proved to be too much as Miami was defeated in seven games.

Western Conference: Phoenix Suns

Coach Mike D’Antoni had the Suns playing some of the most entertaining basketball of the last decade during the 2004-05 season. They led the league in scoring at 110.4 points and were a joy to watch. They had no trouble in their first round match-up with the Grizzlies, sweeping the series. In round two, they faced the Mavericks, winning that series in six games. The Suns took on the Spurs in the conference finals. The Spurs were able keep the Suns’ free flowing offense in check, defeating Phoenix, 4-1. The Spurs went on to beat the Pistons in the Finals.


As you can see, over the last the decade the top seed has won a number of NBA titles. However, there have also been a few instances of the top seed being sent home in round one. For the most part, the West has been the deeper conference and posed more of a challenge for the top seed to make it all the way to the Finals – and that will once again be true this season. In the East, the Hawks shouldn’t have much difficulty in round one, but could be challenged deeper into the postseason with the way the Cavaliers have played lately. It will be interesting see how far the top seeds advance this postseason.

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.

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