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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Pro Basketball's Greatest Playoff Upsets

This article was originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Basketball Digest.

Basketball fans usually associate upsets with the NCAA Tournament, but Cinderella has also made a few appearances in pro basketball's postseason action. Playoff underdogs are even more unlikely victors than their NCAA counterparts because they have to win a series as opposed to one "win or go home" game. In more than 50 years of NBA playoffs 25 teams have won a playoff series against an opponent that won at least 10 more regular season games; six teams accomplished this during the ABA's nine years of existence.

The 1974-75 Spirits of St. Louis pulled off one of the most unlikely upsets in sports history, defeating the New York Nets 4-1 in the ABA Eastern Division Semifinals. In 1973-74 the Nets went 55-29 in the regular season and won the championship with a 12-2 playoff record despite having the youngest starting lineup in pro basketball (average age: 22.6). Led by superstar Julius Erving, the 1974-75 squad improved to 58-26, including an 11-0 mark versus St. Louis; most of the wins were by double digit margins.

Meanwhile, St. Louis went 4-17 from late January to early March and barely qualified for the playoffs with a 32-52 record. The Nets won game one of the first round series 111-105 despite 41 points by Marvin Barnes, the talented but erratic St. Louis forward. Barnes notched 37 points and 18 rebounds in a 115-97 game two St. Louis victory (he averaged 30.8 ppg and 14.1 rpg in the 1975 playoffs).

The Spirits won the next two games in St. Louis and clinched the series in game five in New York on a jump shot by veteran All-Star guard Freddie Lewis. The Spirits acquired Lewis, a key member of three Indiana Pacers ABA championship teams, early in the season to provide stability and leadership for their talented but undisciplined squad. He averaged 26.2 ppg in the 1975 playoffs and helped keep the Spirits competitive versus the eventual champion Kentucky Colonels in the Eastern Conference Finals before being sidelined with a sprained ankle.

Don Adams, a journeyman forward waived in the middle of the season by the Detroit Pistons, made a significant contribution to the Spirits' playoff run. St. Louis signed him for the ABA minimum of $200 a game. He immediately brought an element of toughness and savvy to the team. His physical defense frustrated Erving in the playoffs and fit right in with the bruising style of young Spirits' forwards Maurice Lucas and Gus Gerard. Rookie Lucas led the Spirits in rebounding (14.7 rpg) and assists (5.0 apg) during the 1975 playoffs. He later became an All-NBA performer with the Portland Trailblazers and teamed with Bill Walton to win the 1977 championship.

Three years earlier Rick Barry's Nets (Erving was then a rookie with the Virginia Squires) achieved the second biggest upset in playoff history, knocking off the powerful Kentucky Colonels in the ABA Eastern Division Semifinals. ABA Rookie of the Year Artis Gilmore (23.8 ppg and a league best 17.8 rpg) and second year standout Dan Issel (30.6 ppg, third in the league) led the Colonels to a 68-16 regular season record, the best ever in the ABA. The Colonels also had two excellent guards in Louie Dampier (15.9 ppg and 36.1% three point shooting, fourth in the ABA) and Darel Carrier, who missed most of the season with a back injury.

During the regular season, Colonels' coach Joe Mullaney installed a defense in which opposing offensive players were funneled to the lane, where they were thwarted by Gilmore, the league's best shot blocker. Kentucky beat New York seven out of eleven games in the regular season but Nets' Coach Lou Carnesecca made some key adjustments for the playoff series. The first change was caused by injury: Bill Melchionni's broken hand led to more minutes and shot attempts for John Roche, who scored 32 ppg in the playoffs versus the Colonels.

The Nets countered Mullaney's defensive scheme by pulling up for short jump shots instead of driving all the way to the hoop. The Nets focused most of their defensive pressure on Issel, Gilmore and Dampier while allowing the other Colonels to roam freely. Gilmore performed near his regular season levels (21.8 ppg and 17.7 rpg) but Issel (22.0 ppg, 41.2 FG%) and Dampier (13.2 ppg, 42.0 FG%) posted subpar numbers. The Nets stunned the Colonels by taking the first two games in Kentucky and eventually closed out the series in six games.

Dan Issel has much more pleasant memories of the third biggest upset in playoff history. Who can forget the image of Denver Nuggets' center Dikembe Mutombo lying on the floor holding the basketball after Denver upset the Seattle Supersonics in the first round of the 1993-94 Western Conference Playoffs? All-Stars Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton led Seattle to the Pacific Division championship with a league best 63-19 record. Denver did not have any 1994 All-Stars, but Issel coached the Nuggets to a 42-40 record, good enough for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Seattle won the first two playoff games easily and seemed poised to coast into the second round. The Nuggets saved their season with a blowout win in game three and stunned the basketball world by winning games four and five in overtime thrillers. Mutombo controlled the boards and swatted shots with abandon, while LaPhonso Ellis and Reggie Williams led a very balanced scoring attack. Brian Williams provided scoring and rebounding off the bench, a role he would later reprise on the 1997 Chicago Bulls' championship team. Kemp shot 53.8% from the field during the regular season but misfired versus the Nuggets at a 37.1% clip. Payton was a poor free throw shooter during the regular season (59.5%) and simply awful from the free throw line during the playoffs (42.1%).

The 1974-75 Indiana Pacers are the only other team to upset a playoff opponent that won 20-plus more regular season games. In the early ’70s the Pacers won three ABA titles and became known as the Boston Celtics of the ABA. The dynasty seemed to be over in 1974 when the Pacers traded away veterans Roger Brown, Mel Daniels and Freddie Lewis to rebuild the team around the multi-talented George McGinnis. McGinnis led the league in scoring (29.8 ppg) and shared regular season MVP honors with Julius Erving. McGinnis was even better in the playoffs, averaging 32.3 ppg, 15.9 rpg and over 8 apg.

The 45-39 Pacers defeated George "Iceman" Gervin and the 51-33 San Antonio Spurs 4-2 in a mild upset and squared off against the heavily favored Denver Nuggets in the Western Division Finals. Larry Brown coached the Nuggets to the best record in the ABA (65-19). Denver featured a high scoring backcourt of Ralph Simpson (20.6 ppg) and Mack Calvin (19.5 ppg), excellent defensive forward Bobby Jones and undersized but effective center Mike Green. McGinnis almost single handedly carried the Pacers to a game seven showdown in Denver. With a 40-2 regular season home record the Nuggets surely must have liked their chances, but Indiana prevailed 104-96. The Pacers bowed to the Gilmore-Issel Colonels in the ABA Finals, 4-1.

Any listing of greatest playoff upsets must recount the improbable saga of the 1994-95 Houston Rockets. Houston is the only team to beat four playoff opponents that each won 50-plus regular season games. In the Western Conference Semifinals versus the 59-23 Pacific Division champion Phoenix Suns the Rockets also became only the fifth team to come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a seven game series and only the second to do so without the home court advantage.

While it is true that the Rockets won the 1994 championship, they hardly looked like title contenders during most of the 1995 season. On Valentine's Day Houston traded starting power forward Otis Thorpe to Portland for perennial All-Star guard (and former Houston Cougar) Clyde Drexler. The Rockets had just completed an uninspired stretch of play with a 6-6 record and guard Vernon Maxwell faced a lengthy suspension for going into the stands after a heckling fan.

At the time of the trade many observers criticized the Rockets for dealing away a top rebounder from a team that already struggled on the backboards. The big move certainly did not pay any immediate dividends, as the Rockets went 17-18 to close out the season. However, Olajuwon missed eight of those games due to injury and Drexler averaged 30 ppg and 9.3 rpg during that time.

In the first round of the playoffs Houston faced the 60-22 Utah Jazz and teetered on the brink of elimination after a 95-82 game three loss at the Summit. In game four Olajuwon (40) and Drexler (41) became only the third teammates to score 40-plus points in the same playoff game (Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose joined the club in 2000) as the Rockets won 123-106. Houston's one-two punch scored 33 and 31 respectively as the Rockets beat the Jazz in Utah in game five, 95-91.

Then came the stunning comeback versus the Phoenix Suns and a 4-2 triumph versus the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. Hakeem Olajuwon's induction video for the Basketball Hall of Fame could easily be filled just with his highlights versus 1995 regular season MVP David Robinson (Olajuwon averaged 35.3 ppg, 12.5 rpg and 4.2 bpg versus the Spurs). The Rockets finished off their playoff run by sweeping the 57-25 Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals.

Pro Basketball's Greatest Playoff Upsets

Year Team Record Opponent Record Diff.

1974-75 Spirits of St. Louis 32-52 New York Nets 58-26 26
1971-72 New York Nets 44-40 Kentucky Colonels 68-16 24
1993-94 Denver Nuggets 42-40 Seattle Supersonics 63-19 21
1974-75 Indiana Pacers 45-39 Denver Nuggets 65-19 20
1975-76 Phoenix Suns 42-40 Golden St. Warriors 59-23 17
1980-81 Kansas City Kings 40-42 Phoenix Suns 57-25 17
1958-59 Minneapolis Lakers 33-39 St. Louis Hawks 49-23 16
1986-87 Seattle Supersonics 39-43 Dallas Mavericks 55-27 16
1994-95 Houston Rockets 47-35 San Antonio Spurs 62-20 15
1980-81 Houston Rockets 40-42 Los Angeles Lakers 54-28 14

Playoff Round Score

1974-75 ABA Eastern Div. Semifinals 4-1
1971-72 ABA Eastern Div. Semifinals 4-2
1993-94 NBA Western Conf. First Round 3-2
1974-75 ABA Western Div. Finals 4-3
1975-76 NBA Western Conf. Finals 4-3
1980-81 NBA Western Conf. Semifinals 4-3
1958-59 NBA Western Div. Finals 4-2
1986-87 NBA West. Conf. First Round 3-1
1994-95 NBA Western Conf. Finals 4-2
1980-81 NBA West. Conf. First Round 2-1

Note: This chart lists the 10 greatest upsets in NBA/ABA playoff
history based on regular season won/loss differential.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:27 PM



At Monday, May 10, 2010 10:22:00 AM, Anonymous JackF said...

NO Golden State against dallas Mavericks in 2007? That Dallas team won 67 games and was the favorites to win the 2007 championship. They dominated the whole league for a whole season only to fall to the warriors in the first round. Golden state only had won 42 games.
about a 25 games difference in the winning department. Not to mention Dallas also had the MVP so I dont how you dont put this up there.

At Monday, May 10, 2010 4:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Please note that this is a reprint of an article that I wrote for Basketball Digest in 2002.

Basketball Digest folded several years ago, so I decided to post my articles from that magazine in order to archive them in the right hand sidebar of 20 Second Timeout's main page. I think that there is historical value in keeping the articles the way that I originally wrote them as opposed to "updating" them.


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