We can safely argue that, more often than not in the NBA, the best teams end up winning the Larry O’Brien trophy. Michael Jordan’s [and Scottie Pippen] Chicago Bulls won six titles in 8 years between 1991 and 1998, ‘three-peating’ twice. Shaquille O’Neal and the late Kobe Bryant, arguably the most formidable duo in NBA history, led the Lakers to three consecutive titles in the early 2000s. The Miami Heat boasted a roster that had Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh; a team that would win back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. Of course, we witnessed a Warriors team that had Steph Curry and Kevin Durant lift the NBA championship twice in a row.
But as it is with any sport, an underdog pops up occasionally to win the NBA finals. We saw this play out in 1978 with the Washington Bullets (still the team with the worst regular-season record to win the NBA). And most recently, the Kawhi-led Toronto Raptors; a team that caused a major upset to arguably the greatest roster ever assembled.
But we can’t be mad. We love upsets as long as we aren’t on the receiving end. These scenarios are good for the league. It shows that every team has a shot at winning, no matter how slim the chances are.
This is also good for NBA followers across the globe because it makes the league less boring and unpredictable. Also, fans can place NBA money line bets on underdogs and earn huge rewards.
2019 will always be a historic year for the Raptors. Nobody saw them winning the league. But Toronto is not the first franchise to cause a major upset in the league this century. Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we?
1. The Cleveland Cavaliers (2016)
“CLEVELAND! THIS IS FOR YOU” – Lebron James
The Cavs vs Warriors 2015 to 2018 series is a classic that will remain etched in our minds forever. This was the first, and so far, the only time two teams faced each other in the NBA Finals for four straight years. Although the Warriors won three out of four, it’s the Cavs win in 2016 that stands out as the most memorable.
The Cavs were underdogs which is quite funny to say, considering their 57-25 record; enough to secure them the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The team, led by Lebron James and Kyrie Irving, swept the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks in the first and second round of the playoffs and bested the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals after six games.
Why on earth will a team with such a resumé be regarded as underdogs? Because the 2015-16 Warriors were the team to beat.
With a 73-9 record, the Dubs cemented themselves as the team with the best regular-season record in NBA history, surpassing the 95-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10). Their playoff run was as expected; strolling past the Rockets and Trail Blazers, and overcoming a 3-1 deficit against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
The game was a repeat of the 2014-2015 finals which the Warriors took after 6 games. The Dubs were looking to repeat against a highly-motivated Lebron with a lot of expectations on his shoulders. They took an early 3-1 lead and were looking to close out game 5.
The Warriors had not lost 3 games in a row all season and everything seemed to be on their side except….you guessed it? Lebron James and Kyrie Irving.
Lebron averaged a near triple-double during the final three games (36.3ppg, 11.7 rebounds, and 9.7). This was about enough to push past the Warriors and earn the Cavs their first championship in franchise history.
2. Dallas Mavericks (2011)
Lebron may have stunned the Warriors in 2016, but he’s also been on the receiving end. The Miami Heat assembled a star-power trio in Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh during the 2010 offseason, and all eyes were on them to deliver. Expectations were through the roof. No team was supposed to stand a chance against that roster.
The Heat had a slow start to the regular season but finished with a record strong enough to earn them the second seed in the East (58-24). They went on a 12-3 rampage during the playoffs, seeing off the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and Chicago Bulls without much stress.
Their next task wasn’t supposed to be their biggest; a repeat finals series against the 3-seed Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs exited the Trail Blazers, swept the Lakers, and overcame Oklahoma City Thunder to earn a ticket to the finals.
The pressure was mounting on Lebron James to finally win his first championship and with a 2-1 lead, things were going according to plan. Until Dirk Nowitzki happened.
The Mavs would go on to win the next three games thanks to Dirk’s 23.7 points and 9.3 rebounds. Jayson Terry also played a pivotal role, registering 21.7 points (58.17 field goal percentage) in the final three games. These two combined to earn the Mavericks their first championship in franchise history.
3. Miami Heat (2006)
Not the greatest of upsets but…
The Mavs may have been the underdogs in 2011, but they were the favorites in the Finals game against the Miami Heats in 2006.
Miami’s roster had Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neal leading the way. They were second in the Eastern Conference with a 52-30 regular-season record but were 12 games behind the Detroit Pistons. Their first-round series wasn’t the greatest of displays and although they saw off 7-seed Chicago Bulls in Game 6, many never really considered them as favorites to come out of the East.
The Heat would go on to defeat the 3-seed New Jersey Nets and the Pistons to face the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals (60-22 during the regular season). The Mavs swept Memphis in the first round, took down 1-seed San Antonio Spurs, and defeated the 2-seed Phoenix Suns during their playoff run.
Dallas had the first two games on lock and were hoping to seal the deal until Dwayne Wade exploded into life. He averaged 34.7 ppg in the finals and earned Miami its first NBA championship.
However, the game wasn’t without controversy; many criticized the officials for the foul calls on Dwayne Wade who attempted 97 free throws during the series. Fortunately for Mavs fans, they got their revenge five years later.
4. Detroit Pistons (2004)
Arguably the most shocking upset this century, the 2004 Pistons took down a Lakers team that had Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Gary Payton. Karl Malone was injured and couldn’t play, but the Lakers remained the heavy favorites.
The 3-seed Pistons came into the finals with a 54-28 record and were able to see off the Milwaukee Bucks, New Jersey Nets, and Indiana Pacers during the playoffs. LA had 56–26 in a much tougher Western Conference and eased past the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and Minnesota Timberwolves in the playoffs.
But what was supposed to be a relatively easy ride turned out bad for the purple and gold; so bad that O’Neal and Bryant were the only two Lakers with above 6.4ppg in the series. They were completely shut down by the Pistons’ defense. The series ended 4-1 in favor of the Pistons.