The Boston Celtics better hope that the “Curse of the 8-1 Upset” isn’t visited upon them this year.
In the long history of the NBA playoffs, there haven’t been that many eighth seed take-downs of no. 1 seeds in the first round. It’s happened just five times since 1994, with the latest setback suffered by no. 1 Chicago being tripped up 4-2 by no. 8 Philadelphia in 2012.
The Eastern Conference no.1 Celtics (53-29) sputtered out of the gate in their first game against no. 8 Chicago (41-41) on Sunday night, getting severely out-rebounded (53-36) in a 106-102 loss at TD Garden. Then on Tuesday night, the Bulls took game 2 by a score of 111-97, putting a 2-0 stranglehold on the series heading back to the Windy City.
Other than the Celtics-Bulls series, the 2017 first round is unfolding as expected.
The Boston-Chicago early returns got us to thinking about just which historic first round upsets were the most surprising. Here are 10 that blew everyone away, in chronological order.
10. No. 6 Houston Rockets Beat No. 3 Los Angeles Lakers – 1981
The Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s were a powerhouse team that went to the finals eight times and won it all on five of those occasions. A team that featured legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson won it all in 1980 and then entered the 1981 playoffs as the no. 3 seed in an old system that saw the top two teams get a first round bye and the 3-through-6 teams play off in a best-of-three. The Lakers finished a respectable 54-28 and drew the 40-42 Houston Rockets, who scraped into the playoffs as the sixth seed. While not stacked with high end talent, the Rockets had talented big man Moses Malone in the line-up, ably assisted by Calvin Murphy. Malone poured in 38 points and Murphy 19 as the Rockets jumped out to a 1-0 lead with a 111-107 stunner. The Lakers stormed back with a 111-106 win in game 2, but in game 3 defence would rule the day, much to the detriment of the Lakers. The Rockets defence limited Jabbar and Johnson to 42 points, winning 89-86 and taking the series 2-1.
9. No. 7 Seattle SuperSonics Upend No. 2 Dallas Mavericks – 1987
After the NBA changed its playoff format in the middle of the 1980s, eight teams from each conference would make the playoffs, with no. 1 playing no. 8 and so on in five-game first round sets. In 1987, Seattle backed into the playoffs as the seventh seed in the west with a mediocre 39-43 record. Facing them were the 55-27 Dallas Mavericks, who had susperstar forward Mark Aguirre in the fold (25.7 PPG that year). True to form, the Mavs rolled up the Sonics in game 1, 151-129, on the strength of Aguirre’s 28 points and nine players in double digits. What the Mavericks didn’t see coming, though, was the continued good play of Seattle’s Tom Chambers, Dale Ellis and Xavier McDaniel and diminishing returns from Aguirre. After a narrow 112-110 loss in game 2, there was not much cause for alarm on the Dallas bench, but after a 117-107 trouncing in game 3, their collars got tighter. The Sonics completed the mercy killing with a resounding 124-98 win in game four, with McDaniel, Chambers and Ellis combining for 81 points.
8. No. 7 Golden State Warriors Sweep No. 2 Utah Jazz – 1989
Before the days of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant et al., the Dubs were an also-ran team for more years than they cared to count. In fact, after winning the 1975 title and going to the playoffs in 1976 and 1977, the Warriors missed the playoffs nine straight times. In 1989, after going to the post-season in 1987 and missing the Big Dance in 1988, the Warriors squeaked into the ’89 post-season as the seventh seed in the west with a 43-39 record. They drew the no. 2 Utah Jazz, who trotted out future Hall of Famers and Jazz legends Karl Malone and John Stockton on a nightly basis. The Warriors main source of offensive inspiration came from Chris Mullin, who led the team in scoring that season with 26.5 PPG. And it was he, Mullin, who would scorch the Jazz for 98 points, 15 rebounds, 15 assists and six steals as the Warriors swept aside the powerful Jazz in three straight.
7. No. 8 Denver Nuggets Take Down No. 1 Seattle SuperSonics – 1994
We’ll just call this one just desserts. Seven years earlier, the lowly Sonics punished the high-flying Dallas Mavericks in round 1 of the 1987 playoffs. In 1993-94, Seattle wasn’t sneaking up on anybody, fashioning a superb 63-19 record and top seed in the Western Conference. This SuperSonics squad had a deadly trio at its core, including Gary Payton, Detlef Schrempf and a young Shawn Kemp. Over on the eighth-place Nuggets side, veterans Dikembe Mutombo and Reggie Williams were counted on to lead the 42-40 Nuggets. It was a severe mismatch, at least on paper. And the Sonics proved it in the first two games of the five-game series, beating the Nuggets soundly, 106-82 in game 1 and 97-87 in game 2. But, a funny thing happened when the series shifted to the Mile High City. Mutombo and the Nuggets out-rebounded the Sonics 43-25 in game 3, winning 110-93. Then, in game 4, Mutombo and LaPhonso Ellis grabbed 33 boards and poured in 37 points as the Nuggets squared the series at 2-2. In game 5, Denver would become the first no. 8 seed ever to beat a no. 1, again beating the Sonics on the backboards and all over the floor in a 98-94 OT thriller.
6. No. 7 New York Knicks Stun No. 2 Miami Heat – 1998
This five-game series was as notable for the stars playing in it as it was for the hard-nosed play and even a bench-clearing brawl in the late stages of game 4. The Knicks scuffled their way to a 43-39 record that season, finishing a full 12 games back of Atlantic Division front-runner Miami at 55-27. Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning were the offensive catalysts of a fairly deep team that also feature Dan Majerle and Jamal Mashburn. They were dominant in game 1 of the series, whipping the Bulls 94-79. The Knicks, undaunted, knotted things up in game 2, getting 25 points from reserve guard John Starks in a 96-86 statement win. Miami rebounded with a win in game 3 before the Knicks again came off the mat in game 4 to square the series at 2-2. The dagger came in game 5 with the Knicks’ Allan Houston pouring in a game high 30 points and Charles Oakley scoring 18 and pulling down 13 rebounds as the Knicks pounded the Heat 98-81.
5. No. 8 New York Knicks Shock No. 1 Miami Heat – 1999
It was like deja-vu all over again in the 1999 playoffs for the Miami Heat. It was a lockout shortened campaign, with the Knicks finishing just six games back of Miami in the standings, but they were still the no. 8 seed. There was no shortage of hate between these two Eastern Conference squads, considering the punch-up they staged in the first round of the ’98 post-season. Miami was looking to avenge the upset they suffered at the hands of the Knicks, but fell flat in the ’99 series opener, dropping a 95-75 stinker that saw them shoot just 34.6 percent from the field. The Heat managed to tie things up in game 2, before the New York again cranked things up in game 3, getting elite performances from Patrick Ewing (15 points, eight rebounds) and Latrell Sprewell (game high 20 points) in a 97-73 pounding. Mourning and Hardaway were instrumental in the Heat fighting back to win game 4 by a count of 87-72, but just like 1998, game 5 would be their undoing. In a hotly contested final tilt, Allan Houston scored the last two of his 12 points with just 0.8 seconds left in the game to seal a 78-77 victory.
4. No. 8 Golden State Warriors Bounce No. 1 Dallas Mavericks – 2007
The Dallas Mavericks of 2006-07 fashioned one of the greatest seasons in NBA history, tying three other teams at the time for the fifth best record at 67-15. This was a powerhouse team coming off a disheartening loss in the 2006 finals that showcased the talents of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Josh Howard. The Warriors, meanwhile, finished 25 games back at 42-40 and had Baron Davis as their leader. Yet, the “We Believe” Dubs won the season series against their much taller foe, 3-0. And the Mavs would be thoroughly outplayed in a six game series. By game 4 of the series, Dallas was already down 3-1 and looking at another embarrassment. They fought back in game 5, with the game Nowitzki being a one-man wrecking crew with 30 points and 12 rebounds in a 118-112 victory. The big German, other than under the boards, was near invisible in game 6, limited to just eight points, while the Warriors Stephen Jackson dropped seven of eight three-pointers for a game high 33 points. It was a thorough shellacking as Golden State won 111-86 to take the series.
3. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs Trip Up No. 2 Dallas Mavericks – 2010
Until they finally won a championship in 2011, the Dallas Mavericks just couldn’t shed the “choker” label. Forever a bridesmaid, the team regularly finished at or near the top of the Western Conference standings, only to suffer bewildering losses to lesser teams in the post-season. Again, in 2010, the Mavs were coming off a great 55-27 season, just two games back of the Lakers. The San Antonio Spurs, who won three championships in the early part of the last decade, were starting to show their age in 2009-10, but still finished 50-32 for the no. 7 season in a tough Western Conference. The old boys on the Spurs like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli still had some life left in their legs and paved the way for a six-game upset of favored Dallas. Ginobli led all San Antonio scorers with 19 points per game, while Duncan chipped in 18.2 PPG and hauled in a series high 57 rebounds. After taking a 103-81 whipping in game 5, the Spurs jumped out to a 47-34 lead in game 6 and held on for a 97-87 triumph, sending the Mavericks to yet another early exit.
2. No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies Upset No. 1 San Antonio Spurs – 2011
Turnabout is fair play, as the star-studded Spurs found out in 2011. A year after sending higher-seed Dallas to the showers in the first round, San Antonio found out the hard way that underestimating an opponent is deadly. The Spurs had a 60-win season (61-21 actually, the best record in the NBA) for the first time in five seasons in 2010-11 and looked their superior old selves heading into a first-round tilt with lowly Memphis, which finished 46-36. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli and Tim Duncan were still the Spurs best players and battle-hardened in the playoffs. Memphis, meanwhile, didn’t have quite the star-power, but did have a young Mike Conley (13.7 PPG that year) and veteran Zach Randolph (team high 20.1 points). It would be the younger, faster Grizz who manhandled the Spurs, however, with Zach Randolph destroying San Antonio in the paint (team high 21.5 points and 55 rebounds). Memphis won game 1 and never looked back en route to a six-game shocker.
1. No. 8 Philadelphia 76ers Knock Out No. 1 Chicago Bulls – 2012
Another year, another lockout. This time around, the players and owners staged a battle of wits that shortened the season from 82 to 66 games in 2011-12. The Chicago Bulls tied the San Antonio Spurs that season with the best record in the league at 50-16 and were destined to meet the no. 8 seed Philadelphia 76ers (35-31) in the first round. These were the Bulls of Derrick Rose (who was injured for most of the first round), Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng. The Sixers were a throw-together team with no real stars and a leading scorer in bench depth player Lou Williams (14.9 points per game). In the end, however, the Bulls would be outdone by young Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday, who scored a series high 18.2 points and dished out 28 dimes to lead Philly to a six-game upset. The Sixers Andre Iguodala killed the Bulls hopes in game 6, scoring a game high 20 points and sinking two key free throws with 2.2 seconds on the clock to win it 79-78.