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NBA PM: The Biggest Playoff Upsets in NBA History

Zach Randolph’s 2011 Memphis Grizzlies were one of only five 8-seeds to ever win a playoff series. Two more could join them this year…

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If the Atlanta Hawks and/or Dallas Mavericks win their series this weekend, they’ll be among a small handful of eight-seeds to topple one-seeds in the history of the NBA playoffs.

If Atlanta complete the series win over the once-mighty Pacers, for example, it will have to be considered one of the best playoff upsets ever considering Atlanta entered the postseason with only 38 regular seasons wins—the only team to make the final 16 not to have at least a .500 record.

San Antonio, meanwhile, is only a few years removed from losing a playoff series as a one-seed, and since it’s only happened four times before this season, they’d be the only team to ever get upset by an eight-seed twice.

Whatever happens, both eight-seeds have put up strong fights, and if they do beat the Pacers and Spurs, they’ll join this list of the great upsets in league history:

1994 – Denver Nuggets (8) defeat Seattle SuperSonics (1)
While the Sonics headed into the playoffs with loads of star power and 63 regular season wins under their belts, the Nuggets were basically a faceless eight-seed scrapping and clawing their way through a 42-40 season. Seattle predictably won the first two games of this five-game series at home, but a burgeoning Dikembe Mutombo and the Nuggets took the next two in Colorado to force a Game 5 that would take an overtime to decide the winner. By the end of that game, however, Mutombo would collapse to the ground, grasping a basketball in unbelieving glee as his team celebrated one of the most amazing upsets in the history of the league.

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1999 – New York Knicks (8) defeat Miami HEAT (1)
It feels like ages ago, but the 1998-1999 season only lasted 50 games because of the lockout the previous summer, so had these two teams played all 82 games there’s an excellent chance that the seedings would’ve worked out differently. Officially, though, this is another instance of a top seed losing to an eight-seed, and it was especially juicy at the time because Miami and New York absolutely hated each other. After splitting the first four games of the series, the deciding Game 5 wrapped up in exciting fashion, with New York overcoming a seven-point deficit late in the fourth quarter that was wiped out for good when Allan Houston dropped in a floater during the game’s final seconds, giving New York the series win. The Knicks didn’t stop there, either; they eventually represented the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals that year—the only time an eight-seed has ever done such a thing.

2007 – Golden State Warriors (8) defeat Dallas Mavericks (1)
While the Dallas Mavericks eventually redeemed themselves by winning the 2011 championship, 2007 sure looked like a great opportunity for Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks to win the franchise’s first title following a dominant regular season that had them finish with a ridiculous 67 wins. Golden State, meanwhile, finished a scant two games above .500 and should’ve been utterly outmatched, but a raucous Oakland crowd helped push Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and the rest of the Warriors to a series upset over Dallas in only six games.

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2011 – Memphis Grizzlies (8) defeat San Antonio Spurs (1)
By 2011, the San Antonio Spurs had won four championships with Tim Duncan anchoring the roster, while the Memphis Grizzlies hadn’t yet won a single playoff game in the history of the team. It was very easy to count Memphis out, and most people did, yet they proved more than formidable in a series which saw Zach Randolph have the biggest coming-out party of his career. He was easily the star of that series, but players like Marc Gasol and Shane Battier certainly helped things along, as well. It’s really the same core that’s threatening to topple the second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in this year’s playoffs. They started upsetting in 2011 and apparently haven’t stopped since.

2012 – Philadelphia 76ers (8) defeat Chicago Bulls (1)
All that we really need to remember about this series was that Bulls point guard Derrick Rose torn his ACL in Game 1, which knocked the wind out of the top-seeded Bulls (and the entire city of Chicago) and paved the way for a Philadelphia upset. The Bulls did their best to rebound, but a big series from Andre Iguoldala put the kibosh on their efforts. Without Rose, Chicago looked nothing like their top seeding would have suggested. They were a shell of themselves after the former MVP went down.

This weekend’s unbelievable slate of Game 7s should prove to be extremely entertaining, but the added drama of two potentially major upsets makes things all the more fascinating.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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