The first round of this year’s NBA playoffs has given us plenty of highlights, but are any of the series all-time classics? Probably not — although history will have the ultimate say.
For now, let’s take a look at the best first-round series in NBA playoffs history, from the shocking upsets to the ultra-competitive early matchups that felt more like conference finals. (With early apologies to the 2015 Clippers-Spurs matchup, which just missed making the cut here.)
— Rankings by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.
5. Warriors-Mavericks, 2007 Western Conference
No. 8 Warriors 4, No. 1 Mavericks 2
This was the third series win by a No. 8 seed over a No. 1 in NBA history, but it was probably the biggest upset of them all. The previous two came in five-game series, whereas Golden State won this seven-game series in six. The Warriors did it over a Dallas team that had 67 wins, featured the league MVP in Dirk Nowitzki and had the status of reigning Western Conference champions. So, why isn’t this higher? Simple: It’s the only series on this list that didn’t go the distance, and most of the games, shockingly enough, weren’t that close, with four being decided by double digits — three of which were won by the Warriors, including the 25-point clincher in Game 6.
4. Bulls-Cavaliers, 1989 Eastern Conference
No. 6 Bulls 3, No. 3 Cavaliers 2
The last play of this series, of course, has its own name: The Shot. And it’s really that simple. Michael Jordan elevated over Craig Ehlo to hit one of the many defining shots of his career, and to hand Cleveland one of the many defining heartbreaks of its — until recently — tortured sports history. All five games were decided by single digits. And, just to add to his legend, Jordan had some fun with three Bulls beat writers before the decisive game — each of whom picked the Bulls to lose in different fashion. As former Chicago Tribune beat writer Sam Smith wrote:
“The game was about to start and Jordan was pacing in front of the Bulls bench and scorer’s table, where we were sitting. Jordan’s mood was buoyant, as if he knew. So he stops and first points to Lacy (Banks, from the Sun-Times) and says, ‘We took care of you,’ meaning Lacy’s prediction. Then he moves over to Kent (McDill, from the Daily Herald) and points and says, ‘And we took care of you.’ Then he stops in front of me and points and says with a seemingly knowing smile, ‘And today we take care of you.'”
3. Knicks-Heat, 1999 Eastern Conference
No. 8 Knicks 3, No. 1 Heat 2
Allan Houston’s running jumper with 0.8 seconds remaining gave the Knicks a 77-76 Game 5 win and the second 8-over-1 upset in playoff history — one that proved all the more historic when New York made an improbable run to the NBA Finals, before succumbing to the Spurs in five games. The 50-game lockout-shortened season — coupled with these teams’ familiarity as division rivals in the stretch of four straight years of playoff meetings that would go the limit — made the upset a little less shocking. But it was no less dramatic. Surprisingly enough, the first four games in this series were all decided by double digits.
2. Celtics-Bulls, 2009 Eastern Conference
No. 2 Celtics 4, No. 7 Bulls 3
Look, the stakes weren’t the highest in this one — the Celtics ended up losing to eventual Eastern Conference champion Orlando in seven games in the next round — but this series simply had it all. This seven-game affair featured four contests that went to overtime, and seven OT periods in all, with the Bulls winning a Game 6 classic in triple OT. One game was decided by one point, two games were decided by two points and two games were decided by three points. Ray Allen hit a game-winning 3 in Game 2 and scored 51 points in a Game 6 loss. Joakim Noah had a memorable steal and jam in Game 6 to all but clinch that contest. There was no Kevin Garnett, and no Luol Deng, but there was a ton of chippiness, and memories of this series will live on forever.
1. Nuggets-Sonics, 1994 Western Conference
No. 8 Nuggets 3, No. 1 SuperSonics 1
The first 8-over-1 upset in NBA history gets the top spot here, for both historic and potential title implications. This was the league’s first year post-Jordan (the first time), and there was a window of opportunity for so many elite teams. Seattle went 63-19 — five games clear of everyone else in the league — and were in as good of a position as anyone to capitalize. And the SuperSonics looked primed to do just that after taking a 2-0 lead in easy fashion. Then Denver got hot at home, winning both games, including an OT affair in Game 4. The Nuggets closed the deal in Game 5, surviving a Kendall Gill bucket with 0.5 seconds left that forced OT before winning 98-94, leading to the iconic image of Dikembe Mutombo holding the ball on the floor after the buzzer had sounded, history complete.