Ranking the 8-1 upsets in NBA Playoff history

by Micah Hart

The Spurs dominated the NBA for most of the regular season, starting the year 13-1 and reaching the midway point of the season at 35-6, halfway to the rarified 70-win plateau. And though they suffered some injuries and stumbled down the stretch (including a six-game losing streak), they still finished the season 61-21, good for the second-best regular season mark of the Popovich/Duncan Era.

Memphis, on the other hand, began the year inauspiciously, with their owner getting into it with a local radio station over the team’s draft picks, and then seemingly panicking and overpaying their starting point guard. Then they lost their best perimeter player midway through the season.

Sounds like the recipe for a first-round sweep, doesn’t it? Except as we all know, that’s not what happened, as the Grizzlies dropped the Spurs in six games and became just the fourth 8-seed to topple a 1 since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984. Not many people saw this coming this side of Sir Charles, but compared to the other 8-1 conquests, just how big of a surprise was it?

Here’s how I’d rank them:

1. 2007: Warriors (42-40) over Mavericks (67-15), 4-2

The “We Believe” Warriors flat-out embarrassed the heavily-favored Mavericks in 2007. Though the Mavs were nearly unbeatable in the regular season, they played right into Golden State’s hands by trying to go small in the series rather than using their height to their advantage. Some believe Dallas was a victim of a bad matchup (the Warriors won the season series 3-0) and might have won the NBA title had they faced any of the other 15 playoff teams. But the Mavs’ loss, coming on the heels of a collapse in the 2006 NBA Finals against the Heat, cemented their reputation as playoff chokers, a moniker they are still struggling to shed.

2. 1994: Nuggets (42-40) over Sonics (63-19), 3-2

Best remembered for Dikembe Mutombo‘s “I can’t believe it!” moment at the end of Game 5, this series marked the first time an 8 beat a 1. Making it all the more impressive, the Nuggets lost the first two games of the series before winning three straight to close out the Sonics, including the last one in Seattle. Amazingly, Denver would go on to nearly pull off the same feat in the next round, falling behind 3-0 to Utah before winning three straight to force Game 7, where they were finally eliminated.

3. 2011: Grizzlies (46-36) over Spurs (61-21), 4-2

Eerily similar in tone to the Warriors-Mavs series, the Grizzlies came out and won Game 1 of the series and never really looked back. From early on, it was obvious the Grizzlies were younger, faster, and more athletic, and the Spurs had absolutely no answer for Zach Randolph inside. Did injuries play a role? Perhaps. But Memphis didn’t have Rudy Gay either, so seems like that’s a wash at best.

4. 1999: Knicks (27-23) over Heat (33-17), 3-2

Uggh. I get tired just thinking about these two teams brutalizing each other on the basketball court. This was the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, so the disparity between the two teams may not have been much, and indeed they were only separated by six games in the standings. Allan Houston famously won the series for the Knicks with his runner in the lane with 0.8 seconds remaining in Game 5. New York would validate their win with two more upsets, eventually becoming the only 8-seed to make the NBA Finals, where they fell to the first of Tim Duncan‘s title-winning Spurs teams.

That’s how I see it. Which do you rank as the biggest upset?

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29 Comments

  1. Neil says:

    easily, warriors over mavs in 2007, and that’s a big disparity in the win/loss column as well. It was baron davis. this time it’s zach randolph.

  2. Funky_Axl says:

    Does any one know, fefore playoffs expanded to 16 teams,how many teams were allowed in the playoffs?

  3. rein says:

    spurs have been laughing when they almost beat the lakers late in the regular season sitting their allstars. now what? who’s laughing now? lol. you bench manu then you let him played the next game? bad decision. thats where the injury came from.

  4. ed-ball says:

    I’ll tell you why the Spurs lost the series. It was old Popovich not caring about his team anymore. Telling them throughout the regular season they were not as good as the Lakers when they (San Antonio!!!) held the best record in the NBA at the time and had even beaten the Lakers the first two times they met. It was making stupid mistakes by playing all his starters the last game of the regular season were Ginobili injured his elbow, and playing Duncan in the remaining weeks of the regular season when he injured his ankle. It was acquiring weak/old players like Splitter and McDyess instead of looking for the next David Robinson to help Tim Duncan and to help them get the size that allowed them to win 4 NBA CHAMPIONSHIPS. It was forgetting to making them play real team basketball and real team defense which made me become a fan of the Spurs having never grown up in San Antonio myself. It was a great decade for a heck of a team, ashame to have seen it eliminated and fall like this. Popovich should be fired!!!

    • shivam says:

      pop is a great coach. they had to improve offensively

    • Jake says:

      First off, the Lakers were and are the defending champs, so until somebody beats them they are the best team in the league (I hate the Lakers by the way). Also, it’s better to have a mindset of constant improvement rather than thinking you’re the best team in the league and that all you need to do is put on a jersey in order to win.
      Second, Pop never played Duncan when he was hurt. He played Duncan so he could get his conditioning and rythmn back for the playoffs.
      Third, it’s not Pop’s job to acquire players so you can’t blame him for any personnel issues. Plus, Splitter and Mcdyess both did pretty well actually. Also, players like David Robinson don’t grow on trees. It’s not like the Spurs weren’t looking for the next David Robinson, the problem is that there hasn’t been another big man even close to as good as Robinson who’s come into the league in the last five years.
      Fourth, Pop did have the Spurs playing real team basketball during the entire season. That’s how they were able to win 61 games. Unfortunately, the Spurs ran into a younger, bigger, more athletic Grizzlies team that played with a ton of confidence, shot the ball well, and made plays down the stretch in order to win the series.

  5. Warriors win was the biggest upset.

    Memphis win was not upset at all. Whoever would get that weak spurs team , would it be new orelans, portland , houston or any other playoff caliber team – they would have easy win. How this can be an upset to anything?

    It’s just that memphis intensionally (perhaps) tried to get easy win against spurs instead of lakers – just check the end of regular how teams were loosing to get to no8 seed.

    • germanfranc41 says:

      you know nothing my friend… other playoff caliber teams would not have beat this spurs team.. and where is the hype in all these?? injuries is not an excuse.. their opponent have injuries too.. new orleans – west, memphis -gay , houston- yao.. why has this upset didn’t get much the story as the last one.. spurs – miami in the finals?? give me a break.. haha

  6. T.J says:

    I think each of these upsets were big for their season, especially the nuggets upset over the sonics.

  7. Perrelli Black says:

    I was lucky to have seen all those games we mention starting with the Nuggets over sonics that was an exciting year, i was in High School then, my Favorite was the New York Knicks becaus the has Larry Johnson, Allen Houston, Marcus Camby, Latrell Spreewell who faught hard out of the 8th seed to make it to the FINALS unbelieveable and Patrick Ewing was a fadingLeader still on the Knicks but was injured, and this was there time to go and win one for NY since the BULLS era was broken up before its time.

  8. One says:

    I dunno if Memphis was an upset, because they definitely belong in the Playoffs. They’re ripping the Thunder in OKC now as i write this. So, yea. Warriors over the Mavs in 2007 is the biggest upset.

  9. peter piper says:

    Before the playoffs I made a bet with my friend that either NOH or MEM will make a first round upset and they did. The thing with ATL against Orlando was obvious. Everyone knew that Howard won’t be able to win it by himself. He’s a great player, but you can’t win a series playing alone. Now I bet my money that OKC won’t be able to win in 6 or less. It will end in 7 and I will say it is Memphis. Boston will win in 6 with Miami, I am sure only because of Rondo. He gets crazy in the playoffs. I want to see the Celtics obliterate Bulls in conference finals. It is going to be Boston against Lakers again.

  10. dddddddddsddsjfcnferv says:

    whoohoo

  11. Kulut says:

    The miami heat will won the title for sure,.

  12. mhon2 says:

    lakers v celts!

  13. e.adams says:

    Richard Jefferson didn’t show up for the Spurs. i dont understand why they didnt go after Corey Brewer? Bottom line is, Duncan is a shell of himself, Manu keeps getting banged up and Tony is looking fragile lately. To me, Pop is a better coach than Phil. They just ran into a young and hungry team with a good defensive effort. And they’re doing all this without Rudy Gay..Seriously. Don’t be surpised IF the Grizz go to the WCFinals…Book it!

    • Jake says:

      I don’t know what the deal is with RJ. He was a borderline all-star in NJ and Milwaukee, but since he’s come to the Spurs he’s played like an average role player at best. He was invisible during the Memphis series. Also, it is scary to think how good the Grizzlies might be if they had Rudy Gay.

  14. jone says:

    @peter piper, boston in game6? come on that’s stupid! rondo is not a key player anymore versus heat, bibby or chalmers stopped him.. and boston celtics era will end up this playoffs, if miami won 2-0 the series will end at game 5 or six for miami.. celtics are no longer the team before giving up perkins to another team.. miami and lakers in the finals (extremely exciting match up

  15. johnberna23 says:

    go lakers

  16. johnberna23 says:

    lakers back to back champion no one beat L.A and black mamba

  17. phamie says:

    I Think 1999 was the Best because Allan Houston and the Knicks makes it to the FINALS.
    I Miss the duo of Houston and Sprewell.

  18. Chris says:

    Well, could the Mavs really get another shot at playing Miami in the finals? I hope so! Although there’s not much left of the two teams that met in 06, that would be an exciting series. Both teams are better now (on paper) than they were back then.
    In fact, this was the greatest upset: Mavs leading 2-0 in the finals, losing them, then going for the best record in the league and getting eliminated in the first round! It’s the combination of those two!

    My predictions:
    DAL – LA 4-0
    MEM – OKC 7 Games up for grabs
    BOS – MIA 2-4
    ATL – CHI 1-4

    MEM/OKC – DAL 2-4
    MIA – CHI (very tough to say!) MIA in 6 or 7

    MIA – DAL ???

    As silly as this prediction would have been before the playoffs started, it’s looking very likely to me right now. Would have picked the Lakers to win over the Mavs, but Dallas really surprised me. I thought they could challange LA but not THIS much!!!
    A sweep in this series would be one of the greatest upsets too!!
    Maybe it’s really all about Pau Gasol. Always when the Mavs face him in the playoffs, they go to the finals ;)

    Tell me what you think :)

  19. Don says:

    agreed with you.

    dallas-miami in Finals.

    hate to say this but narrow chance for the Mavs to win on Miami.hate Miami so much!

  20. awesomeman says:

    67 wins, that is 3 wins away from 70.

  21. dale says:

    it should be 1994 nuggets (it’s almost mission impossible!)

  22. DAL-MIA 2011 Finals says:

    Z-Bo’s pic should’ve been there instead of Allen’s..

  23. […] I have a hard time respecting the playoff competition. And because the NBA is so top-heavy, you rarely see a big first-round upset like you do every so often in the […]

  24. Jared says:

    Its definitely NOT the Warriors over the Mavs. As a lifelong W’s fan, here’s why:

    The Warriors completed a mid-season trade for Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson, and then went 16-5 down the stretch. You can’t call them a 42-40 team because their playoff roster was 16-5. That’s way too good to be an 8 seed–any team playing that well should be a 4 or higher. The Warriors went on to win 48 games the next season despite an 0-7 start without S-Jax in the lineup, so they were very legit.

    The Warriors were 3-0 against the 67-win Mavs that season because head coach Don Nelson created the Mavs as we know them. I believe he drafted Dirk, and he taught Avery Johnson everything he knew about coaching. He knew every inch of the Mavs roster, their weaknesses, and he exploited them masterfully.

    To make things worse, Avery Johnson was still very much a rookie head coach, and he was woefully unprepared for playoff coaching. He famously mirrored the Warriors’ small-ball attack, basically coaching his team into a buzz saw.

    Besides, how can it be an upset no one saw coming when TONS of people saw this coming? Many pundits (Skip Bayless comes to mind) actually went on record and predicted an 8 seed beating a 1 seed outright. You can’t say that about any of these other matchups. Many more pundits saw the series being extremely difficult for the Mavs, regardless. For anyone who ignored that “an 8-seed never beats a 1-seed” this was a relatively easy series to predict. Not only was this not a great playoff upset–it wasn’t even an upset. The Warriors were the team many saw coming, and many more should have saw coming if they simply looked at the numbers.

    The biggest upset was definitely the Nuggets over the Sonics. I guarantee Mutoumbo himself has no idea why or how that happened.