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As the NBA gets set to resume its season, we can’t help but anoint favorites to challenge for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
We elect favorites based on seeding, regular-season proficiency and star power. Yet in some glorious instances, the underdog rises to the challenge.
Here are the 10 most surprising such cases in the past 20 years.
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The sixth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers shouldn’t have had much of a chance against the No. 3 Denver Nuggets despite winning three of the four regular-season matchups.
At least, according to Sam Cassell.
“The Clippers weren’t in the playoffs last year,” Cassell told the Denver Post‘s Marc J. Spears. “We weren’t. Nowhere near it. Yeah, I think we’re the underdog.”
“We might be underdogs,” Elton Brand added. “We don’t have the recent playoff experience that those guys have.”
The run-and-gun Nuggets, coached by George Karl, were the second-fastest team in the NBA and the fifth-highest in scoring. Led by third-year pro Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets managed the third seed by winning the Northwest division, despite winning just 44 games.
To make matters more complicated, the Nuggets suspended Kenyon Martin after a profanity-laced tirade during halftime of Game 2.
The Nuggets dropped Games 1 and 2 in Los Angeles and ultimately fell in five.
Because of the self-proclaimed nature of their underdog status coupled with an archaic system that rewarded a team with a worse record in seeding, this series lands 10th.
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In January 2018, the New Orleans Pelicans seemed to have found their stride. They won seven of eight games, culminating with a shocking 115-113 victory over the 34-13 Houston Rockets on Jan. 26.
But with less than a minute left in that game, four-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins tore his left Achilles tendon, putting New Orleans’ season in jeopardy.
The Pelicans dropped five of their next six games, and their playoff hopes seemed to be fleeting. But following their trade-deadline acquisition of Nikola Mirotic, they reeled off 10 straight wins and finished the season on a 20-8 run.
Heading into the playoffs, the sixth-seeded Pelicans trailed the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers by only one game. However, they were without their second-best player and hadn’t won a playoff series since the 2007-08 season. Meanwhile, the battle-tested Blazers were heading into their fifth straight postseason appearance.
Rather than bow out meekly, the Pelicans unexpectedly swept the Blazers.
Anthony Davis averaged an outrageous 33.0 points and 11.0 rebounds throughout the series, while Jrue Holiday chipped in 27.8 points, 6.5 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game. In the deciding Game 4, the two combined for 88 points on 46 shots, while point guard Rajon Rondo finished with an eye-popping 16 assists.
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One season after becoming the youngest MVP in league history, Derrick Rose and his Chicago Bulls raced out in front of the Eastern Conference with a 50-16 record.
They were once again a juggernaut, finishing second in defensive rating, fifth in offensive rating and first in SRS and seemingly the favorite to prevent LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from reaching the Finals for the second consecutive season.
The first round was meant to be a warm-up. Across from the Bulls was the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed, the 35-31 Philadelphia 76ers. However, with a young core of Jrue Holiday (21), Nikola Vucevic (21), Thaddeus Young (23), Evan Turner (23), Lou Williams (25) and Andre Iguodala (28), the team had talent.
But the Bulls were battle-tested and fated to advance before a catastrophic injury to Derrick Rose would slam their championship window shut. With just 1:22 remaining and a 12-point lead in Game 1, Rose would crumple to the floor with an injury (torn ACL) that would sideline him for the remainder of the playoffs and the entirety of the 2012-13 season.
To make matters worse, the Bulls lost Joakim Noah to a sprained ankle in a Game 3 loss. Without Rose and Noah, the Bulls failed to score more than 82 points over the last four games of the six-game series.
In the end, an eight seed knocked off a one, but it comes with strings attached.
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The Golden State Warriors weren’t supposed to be a playoff team in 2013. Following a 23-win season and offseason ankle surgery for Stephen Curry, the Warriors created more uncertainty by dealing Monta Ellis for oft-injured big Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson.
However, the Warriors also added some blue-chip youngsters in Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green in the 2012 draft. With second-year pro Klay Thompson in addition to Curry, the Warriors were building one of the most dangerous young cores in the NBA.
They would face the third-seeded Denver Nuggets, who went 57-25 and had won 15 straight at one point. George Karl won Coach of the Year, and their roster was stacked with Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Miller, Wilson Chandler, Evan Fournier, Corey Brewer, JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov.
The Nuggets handled the Warriors in the regular season (3-1), with their one blemish by one point. Further, the Warriors lost All-Star big man David Lee with a torn right hip in Game 1 in a contest the Nuggets survived by two points. In Game 2, Curry, Thompson and Barnes combined for 75 points in a decisive win in Denver. The home loss was just the Nuggets’ fourth all season.
The Warriors would take Games 3 and 4 and close the series in six games. We now know what a juggernaut this Warriors team would become.
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This series served as a coronation for star point guard Baron Davis.
Coached by Pat Riley and led by Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning, Dan Majerle, Anthony Mason and Eddie Jones, the Heat emerged as one of the powerhouses in the Eastern Conference, winning 50 games and securing the third seed.
While Mourning would be limited to just 13 games in the regular season, he’d play in all three playoff games, averaging 11.7 points and 5.3 rebounds.
On the other side, Jamal Mashburn was downright dominant, averaging 23.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.3 steals. However, the series belonged to Baron Davis, who averaged 20.3 points with 5.0 assists and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 55 percent from the field, 40 percent from deep and 86.7 percent from the stripe.
The Hornets dominated the series, winning each contest by at least 15 points. They held the Heat to 41 percent shooting from the field and won the battle of the boards by nearly nine per game.
It was no fluke, as the Hornets nearly upended Sam Cassell, Ray Allen, Michael Redd and the Milwaukee Bucks in the semifinals, falling in seven games.
This was an extraordinary upset and a sweep to boot. It deserves recognition for that, but given that it was the best of five games, it lands seventh on our list.
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Just over a year after earning his first trip to the Finals (2007), LeBron James responded with his first of four MVP campaigns in five seasons. He did this while leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to 66 wins and a first-seeded finish in the Eastern Conference.
After parading through the first two rounds with a perfect 8-0 mark against the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks, the Cavaliers met the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Magic had a strong season themselves with 59 wins and series victories over the Philadelphia 76ers and defending champion Boston Celtics (albeit without Kevin Garnett).
But the Cavaliers had the best roster of James’ tenure and seemed destined to meet Kobe Bryant in the Finals. With a backcourt of Mo Williams and Delonte West (29.5 points per game) and a frontcourt of Ben Wallace, Anderson Varejao and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (21.4 rebounds, 3.4 blocks), the Cavaliers had the size and balance to battle Dwight Howard.
But the Cavaliers’ size in the frontcourt couldn’t contend with the Magic’s NBA-leading floor spacing (10 3PM per game). The Magic lit it up with a 55.2 effective field-goal percentage across six games. In the deciding Game 6, Howard scored 40 points with 14 rebounds while LeBron managed just 25 points on 20 shots in 45 minutes.
Taking down the King is always a notable accomplishment; however, the spacing the Magic employed presented challenges from the jump, earning them just a sixth-place finish.
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With an 0-12 record in three playoff series, the Memphis Grizzlies entered the 2011 playoffs as an overwhelming underdog against the 61-win San Antonio Spurs.
With 46 wins, the Grizzlies put together their best win tally in five seasons and their first playoff berth since then. However, it was only enough for a chance to play the Western Conference’s top seed.
The mighty Spurs were in a temporary lull after winning four titles between 1999 and 2007. Still, ESPN gave them a 75 percent chance of winning the series, but they faltered in Game 1 without swingman Manu Ginobili, who was sidelined with a strained elbow.
The Game 1 loss would prove costly, as the Grizzlies would take Games 3 and 4 at home before closing out the series at home in Game 6.
“We were hoping at some point that they would fold under the pressure, make some mistakes through that pressure, and they didn’t,” Tim Duncan told the AP (h/t Seattle Times). “They did the exact opposite.”
The Grizzlies hadn’t just failed to win a playoff series in their history—they had failed to win a single game. That coupled with sliding past the 61-win Spurs lands them fifth.
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The defending champions were a record-setting force. Their season began with the best streak to start a year (24-0), obliterating the previous record of 15-0.
The 73-9 regular-season record earned them immortality, eclipsing the 1995-96 mark previously held by the Chicago Bulls. Dating back to the 2014-15 season, the Warriors won 28 consecutive games, passing the 2012-13 Miami Heat for second all time, and they won 54 straight home games, yet another record.
Steve Kerr won Coach of the Year, Stephen Curry won his second consecutive MVP, and he, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green each earned invitations to the All-Star Game.
After clutching victory from the jaws of defeat from Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the stage was set. The Warriors even raced out to a 3-1 lead, an advantage that had been insurmountable in NBA history until the unthinkable happened.
The 57-win Cavaliers led by LeBron James won three consecutive games and stole what may have been the greatest season in NBA history from the Warriors. The reaction from the upset had far-reaching implications that included the Warriors adding Durant that offseason.
LeBron and his Cavaliers took what was supposed to be a coronation for the Warriors and reversed the narrative.
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Following the infamous “Decision” that united LeBron James with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat shed early-season struggles to win 49 of their final 65 games, earning the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
The fanfare that followed the three superstars rivaled that of the ’90s Bulls as the trio promised, “Not one, not two, not three” championships at their introductory parade. Their confidence appeared well-founded, as they dispatched each of the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls in five games.
But the Miami Heat appeared flummoxed and incapable of responding to the zone defense implemented by head coach Rick Carlisle midway through Game 2 of the Finals.
“Everybody that picked Miami to win it before it started, we was laughing,” Shawn Marion told The Athletic’s Michael Lee. “We thought y’all was full of s–t, to be honest with you.”
History will remember this as the most notable blemish in James’ career. He shrunk from the moment and finished just third in scoring for the Heat while chucking nearly a third of his shots from three-point range. He’d finish the series with only 17.8 points per game while missing 40 percent of his free throws.
The underwhelming performance of these superfriends, highlighted by LeBron’s sheepishness, shocked the NBA world. For that alone, we give it a third-place finish.
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MICHAEL CONROY/Associated Press
You’d be hard-pressed to find a roster with more all-time talent than the 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers had. After the San Antonio Spurs ended the Lakers’ quest for four consecutive titles in 2003, L.A. reloaded, adding future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
It would be Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal‘s last stand as a pair, and both were at the peak of their powers. They expelled the defending champion Spurs in the semifinals before ending Kevin Garnett’s lone trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Waiting for them in the NBA Finals were the Detroit Pistons. Though the Pistons had added Rasheed Wallace, the group entered the series as a +400 underdog. The Pistons held the NBA’s fourth-best offense to 87 points or fewer in four of the five contests and stole the series in five.
For ending the Kobe-Shaq partnership and the Lakers dynasty, we award the Pistons second.
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The “We Believe” Golden State Warriors achieved the impossible, becoming the first eighth seed in NBA history to upset the first seed in a best-of-seven series.
The Warriors sat in 12th place in the West on the morning of March 5 with only 21 games left. Having lost six straight, they needed a miracle to earn a playoff spot. Following the acquisitions of Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington, they’d sprint to the finish by winning 16 of their final 21.
On the other side, the Dallas Mavericks had the best record in the NBA and sixth-best record in NBA history (67-15). Despite the disparity in wins (GS was 42-40), the Warriors had an ace up their sleeve in head coach Don Nelson.
Nelson had coached and served as general manager of the Mavericks from 1997 to 2005, developing Dirk Nowitzki into the superstar he became. During the 2006-07 season, the Warriors swept the Mavericks in three games by an average of 16.3 points.
The Warriors stole Game 1 in Dallas and went up 3-1 before comfortably dismissing the Mavericks in Game 6 by 25 points.
The Warriors didn’t just take down the No. 1 seed—they rewrote the history books against one of the best regular-season teams ever. They finish first.
Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @PrestonEllis.