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NBA

NBA Playoffs Rewind: Revisiting past first-round upsets of top seeds

denver-nuggets-golden-state-warriors-new-york-knicks-split-ftr-gettyimages
The Nuggets, Warriors and Knicks have orchestrated three of the biggest upsets in league history (NBA Getty Images)

The 2019 NBA Playoffs are underway and there has been no shortage of surprises. On Day 1, three of the four top-seeded teams fell at home, losing home-court advantage and sending shockwaves throughout the league in the process.

Which team is the most likely to pull off a first-round upset of a top seed this year?

While the West's No. 8 seed Clippers managed to beat the Warriors just once in the 2018-19 season and the East's No. 8 seed Pistons were swept by the Bucks in the regular season, the seventh-seeded Spurs and Magic both had much better regular-season luck against their first-round opponents.

San Antonio split the season series with Denver (2-2) and Orlando split its season series with Toronto (2-2), handing the Raptors their worst loss of the season in late December.

The Spurs' good fortune against the Nuggets in the 2018-19 season, coupled with their playoff experience, making them a legitimate threat to advance to the second around, but it won't be easy.

To put things in perspective, only five No. 7 seeds have beaten No. 2 seeds since the NBA expanded the playoffs to include eight teams per conference in 1984. To take it a step further, since the NBA changed the format of the first round of the playoffs from best-of-five to best-of-seven in 2003, a No. 7 seed has only beaten a No. 2 seed once.

In 140 such series played since 1984, a team seeded 7th or 8th has advanced past the first round just 10 times.

Let's take a look at when history favoured the underdogs.

1987 - No. 7 Seattle Supersonics (3), No. 2 Dallas Mavericks (1)

Regular season record Head-to-head Head Coach Scoring leader
Supersonics 39-43 0-5 Bernie Bickerstaff Dale Ellis, 24.9 ppg
Mavericks 55-27 5-0 Dick Motta Mark Aguirre, 25.7 ppg

In many ways, the first instance is one of the most shocking. The Mavs swept Seattle 5-0 in the regular season (there were 23 teams at the time) and the Sonics finished with a record four games under .500.

In Game 1, Seattle looked like it did not belong in the playoffs - the Mavericks dismantled the Sonics 151-129. After dropping the first game, Seattle won three straight straight behind the scoring of Dale Ellis (29.5), Tom Chambers (24.5) and Xavier McDaniel (22.8). Most notably, Ellis exploded for 43 points and grabbed 14 boards in Game 3. Seattle clinched the series in convincing fashion, beating the Mavs 124-98 in Game 4.

The 7th seeded Sonics won its next series over No. 6 Houston in six games before being swept by the eventual NBA Champion Lakers in the Conference Finals.

1989 - No. 7 Golden State Warriors (3), No. 2 Utah Jazz (0)

Regular season record Head-to-head Head Coach Scoring leader
Warriors 43-39 2-2 Don Nelson Chris Mullin, 26.5 ppg
Jazz 51-31 2-2 Jerry Sloan Karl Malone, 29.1 ppg

Get used to seeing Don Nelson on this list.

In 1989, Nelson's Golden State Warriors used a high-octane offence to sweep John Stockton, Karl Malone and the 2-seed Utah Jazz in the first round. This is the only instance in which a top seed has been swept by a No. 7 or No. 8 seed. The Warriors were led by the Hall-of-Fame duo of Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond. Mullin, who scored 41 points in the Warriors Game 1 victory, averaged 32.7 for the series and Richmond finished the series with averages of 25.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game.

In the second round, Golden State lost in five to the Phoenix Suns.

1991 - No. 7 Golden State Warriors (3), No. 2 San Antonio Spurs (1)

Regular season record Head-to-head Head Coach Scoring leader
Warriors 44-38 2-2 Don Nelson Chris Mullin, 25.7 ppg
Spurs 55-27 2-2 Larry Brown David Robinson, 25.6 ppg

Nellie, again.

This time, Run TMC (Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin) powered the league's second-best offense past David Robinson and the 2 seed San Antonio Spurs in four games. Hardaway averaged 25.3 points and 9.3 assists for the series while Mullin scored 25.3 per game and Richmond averaged 22.3.

Golden State fell in the second round to the Lakers, who would go on to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.

1994 - No. 8 Denver Nuggets (3), No. 1 Seattle Supersonics (2)

Regular season record Head-to-head Head Coach Scoring leader
Nuggets 42-40 2-2 Dan Issel Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, 18.0 ppg
Supersonics 63-19 2-2 George Karl Shawn Kemp, 18.1 ppg

After 10 years, an 8 seed finally upended No. 1.

To many, the Sonics were the favourite to win the NBA title in the first season since Michael Jordan's retirement. In Games 1 and 2, Seattle looked the part of a championship contender, earning two double-digit wins over the up-and-coming Nuggets. Denver would protect its home floor, taking the next two games to set up a winner-takes-all Game 5. It took an extra frame, but the Nuggets defeated Seattle 98-94 in the decisive final game. For the series, Dikembe Mutombo averaged 12.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and a ridiculous 6.2 blocks per game.

In the second round, Denver took the Utah Jazz to the brink but lost in Game 7.

1998 - No. 7 New York Knicks (3), No. 2 Miami Heat (2)

Regular season record Head-to-head Head Coach Scoring leader
Knicks 43-39 2-2 Jeff Van Gundy Allan Houston, 18.4 ppg
Heat 55-27 2-2 Pat Riley Alonzo Mourning, 19.2 ppg

The Knicks-Heat rivalry reached a new level in 1998. A year prior, Patrick Ewing and the Knicks fell in seven to Miami in the Eastern Conference Semis. The 1997 series is most remembered for the brawl in Game 5 which resulted in the suspensions of five Knicks players over the series' last two games.

In 1998, the teams met again, but New York was without Patrick Ewing, who missed 56 regular season games and all of the first round. Miami took Game 1 of a first-round series in which tempers flared throughout. The Knicks stole home court in Game 2 only to lose it back in Game 3. Then Game 4 happened. Former teammates Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning were involved in one of the most memorable altercations in playoff history; the Knicks would force Game 5 and both Johnson and Mourning were suspended.

In Game 5, Allan Houston led the way for the Knicks, scoring 30 points in a 17-point closeout win. Houston averaged 23.2 points in the first round series.

Patrick Ewing would return in the second round, but New York fell to the Pacers in five games.

1999 - No. 8 New York Knicks (3), No. 1 Miami Heat (2)

Regular season record* Head-to-head Head Coach Scoring leader
Knicks 27-23 2-2 Jeff Van Gundy Patrick Ewing, 17.3 ppg
Heat 33-17 2-2 Pat Riley Alonzo Mourning, 20.1 ppg

Lockout shortened the 1998-99 season to 50 games.

To be fair, the Knicks were much better than they were seeded but did not have an 82 game season to move up in the standings. New York was No. 8 and faced the Heat in the postseason for the third consecutive season. The narrative of teams getting tired of playing one another probably stems from this rivalry (they met in the 2000 playoffs, too).

New York made a statement early in the series, stealing the home court advantage from Miami with a 20-point win in Game 1. After being blown out in Game 3, Miami's comeback win in Game 4 forced a decisive Game 5. In a low-scoring game, the Knicks got past Miami thanks to a last-second floater from Allan Houston. Having Patrick Ewing back helped, too. The 11-time All-Star averaged 14.6 points and 10.8 rebounds in the series.

New York used the momentum from its first-round upset to sweep Atlanta in the second round and defeat the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The 1998-99 Knicks are the lowest seed to ever make the NBA Finals, where they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in five games.

2007 - No. 8 Golden State Warriors (4), No. 1 Dallas Mavericks (2)

Regular season record Head-to-head Head Coach Scoring leader
Warriors 42-40 3-0 Don Nelson Baron Davis, 20.1 ppg
Mavericks 67-15 0-3 Avery Johnson Dirk Nowitzki, 24.6 ppg

Golden State and the Mavs faced off three times during the 2006-07 season - the Warriors won all three. Dallas, who was coming off of a Finals appearance in 2006, had 67 wins, the No. 1 seed and NBA MVP Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk sat in the final regular-season meeting between the two teams as Dallas had already clinched a first-place finish. Still, it was a favourable matchup for Golden State. Don Nelson was back at the helm for the Warriors, just two years after coaching a Mavericks team that featured much of the same core.

The Warriors won Game 1 in Dallas, successfully stealing the home court advantage. After losing Game 2, Golden State defended its home court, winning Games 3 and 4 in Oakland. With its back against the wall, Dallas won Game 5, forcing a Game 6 in the bay. Behind the play of Stephen Jackson and Baron Davis, the Warriors dominated Game 6, winning the game by 25 points and winning the series 4-2. In Round 1, Davis averaged 25 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.7 assists.

16 years removed from beating the No. 2 seed Spurs in the same building, Nellie orchestrated the biggest upset in NBA playoff history. The Warriors went on to lose to the Jazz in the second round, but their first-round upset of the Mavericks will never be forgotten.

2010 - No. 7 San Antonio Spurs (4), No. 2 Dallas Mavericks (2)

Regular season record Head-to-head Head Coach Scoring leader
Spurs 50-32 1-3 Gregg Popovich Tim Duncan, 17.9 ppg
Mavericks 55-27 3-1 Rick Carlisle Dirk Nowitzki, 25.0 ppg

Perhaps the least surprising upset of a top seed, the Spurs finished the season just five games behind Dallas. The West was extremely competitive in 2010, as each team in the playoffs won 50 games. Seven games separated No. 1 (Lakers) and No. 8 (Thunder).

Given Pop's coaching strategies, the 1-3 regular season head-to-head record is best taken with a grain of salt. In the fourth and final regular-season meeting, neither Tim Duncan nor Manu Ginobili played. Fittingly, those same two players led San Antonio in scoring in their first-round win. Ginobili averaged 19 points and 5 assists for the series while Duncan added 18.2 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. After losing Game 1, San Antonio would win four of the next five and close Dallas out in six.

The Spurs' next matchup was not as favourable, they were swept by Phoenix in the second round.

2011 - No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies (4), No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (2)

Regular season record Head-to-head Head Coach Scoring leader
Grizzlies 46-36 2-2 Lionel Hollins Zach Randolph, 20.1 ppg
Spurs 61-21 2-2 Gregg Popovich Tony Parker, 17.5 ppg

In 2011, the Grizzlies and New Orleans Hornets clinched the final two playoff spots with a week remaining in the season. It appeared that neither team wanted parts of the defending champion Lakers, who were locked into the West's 2 seed. Memphis used " inverse analytics " and sat some of its starters for the final two games of the season, many speculated it was with the aim of facing an injured Manu Ginobili and the Spurs in the first round . They got exactly what they asked for.

Ginobili sat out of Game 1 and Memphis capitalized on his absence, stealing home court advantage with a 3-point win. The Grizzlies never looked back, closing San Antonio out in six games. Memphis' "grit and grind" tandem of Zach Randolph (21.5 points, 9.2 rebounds) and Marc Gasol (14.2 points, 12.3 rebounds) led the way, while its defence held the Spurs to 94.3 points per game for the series.

In the second round, the Grizzlies fell in seven to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

2012 - No. 8 Philadelphia 76ers (4), No. 1 Chicago Bulls (2)

Regular season record* Head-to-head Head Coach Scoring leader
76ers 35-31 1-2 Doug Collins Lou Williams, 14.9 ppg
Bulls 50-16 2-1 Tom Thibodeau Derrick Rose, 21.8 ppg

Injuries are a part of the game, but the demoralizing ACL tear suffered by 2011 MVP Derrick Rose in the waning moments of Game 1 not only changed the outlook of this series but the direction of the NBA as a whole. With Rose sidelined for good and Joakim Noah missing half of the series with a sprained ankle, the door was opened for Philadelphia to get past the first round.

Credit must be given where it is due, and the Sixers earned the series win by making plays in big moments. It was an offensive struggle for both teams all series, each scored over 100 points just once in six games. Andre Iguodala shot 59 percent from the free throw line in the 2012 postseason but sank two free throws to give Philadelphia a 79-78 win in Game 6 to close the series. Jrue Holiday led the Sixers in Round 1, averaging 18.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game.

Philadelphia faced the Celtics in the second round and lost in seven games.

Upsets, by the numbers

There is no formulaic approach to predicting what top seed is most likely to be upset in the first round, but there are trends that provide an idea of what upsets could happen. A few of the historic underdogs are linked by a number of stats and trends.

Regular season series: Six of the 10 8/7 seeds that upset 1/2 seeds split the regular season head-to-head and one team (2007 Warriors) won the season series. The 1987 Supersonics are the only team to pull off a first-round upset of a team they failed to beat in the regular season.

Seeding: Does seed matter? It is split evenly. Of the 10 upsets, five were by No. 7 seeds and five were by 8 seeds. Since 2003, three of the four bottom seeds to win were No. 8 seeds.

Stealing home court advantage: Four of the 10 teams to complete a first-round upset of a top-two seed won Game 1 on the road. Of the other six, only the 1994 Denver Nuggets lost the first two games of the series, which was best-of-five.

Road "Warriors": Interestingly enough, of the 10 teams, only the 2010 Spurs had a road record above .500 (21-20). The 2007 Warriors (12-29) had the worst road record of the 10 teams to pull off an upset.

Closing at home: Seven teams closed out the series at home - all four 7/8 seeds that have won since the format switch in 2003 did so in six games.

Unlucky Game 7: When the NBA changed the format of the first round from best-of-five to a best-of-seven series in 2003, it proved to be unfortunate timing as the No. 8 Magic built a 3-1 lead in the first round over Detroit before losing in seven games. The 2003 Magic are one of nine lower seeds to push a top-two seed to the limit before losing in Game 7.

Second round success: Two of the 10 teams advanced past the second round, with the 1998 Knicks being the lone team to advance to the NBA Finals. Of the eight teams that did not make it past the second round, three lost in seven games.

The 2019 postseason features five players in position to pull off the second major postseason upset of their career.

The Magic's Nikola Vucevic and the Clippers' Lou Williams were both members of the No. 8 Sixers team that advanced past the No. 1 Bulls in 2012.

In addition to Williams, the Clippers roster features Garrett Temple, who was a member of the seventh-seeded Spurs that upset the second-seeded Mavericks in 2010.

Ishmael Smith and Rudy Gay were both a part of the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies team that advanced past the top-seeded Spurs in 2011. Gay, who was inactive in 2011 with a shoulder injury, looks to help this year's seventh-seeded Spurs past the two-seed Nuggets while Smith will play a big role for the No. 8 Pistons, who take on the No. 1 Bucks.

Injury has been a common factor in recent upsets and while the Bucks enter the postseason as one the most injury-riddled teams, their regular season dominance over the Pistons works in their favour.

While a few stats and trends bode well for San Antonio and Orlando in their pursuits of a first-round upset, it all comes down to how the game is played.

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