The 8 biggest NBA Finals upsets in history
Nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the NBA Finals. Just ask some of the great teams that went home empty-handed. We rank the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.
History of the NBA Finals
After a hard-fought, 82-game season, 16 teams battle it out for the right to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy and carve their names into basketball history as the NBA champion. Since 1947, when the Philadelphia Warriors won the first ever NBA title, multiple teams have competed for that No. 1 honor year after year. However, the list of past Finals matchups reveals that it’s not always the favored team that comes out victorious. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at the top eight NBA Finals upsets.
Ranking the 8 Biggest Upsets in NBA Finals History
8. 1975 NBA Finals: Golden State Warriors vs. Washington Bullets
Closing NBA Finals betting lines: n/a
Series result: Warriors, 4-0
Finals MVP: Rick Barry
The Washington Bullets had the best record in basketball during the 1974-75 season at 60-22 and were the runaway favorites to win the 1975 NBA Finals. Led by Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, the Bullets were expected to run through the upstart Warriors, who somehow had made it to the Finals. However, the experts didn’t know was how good Golden State’s Rick Barry was. Barry averaged 29.5 points during the Finals, including a 36-point performance in Game 2 and 38 points in Game 3. This series took place before the 3-point arc was introduced to the NBA, which makes Barry’s numbers that much more impressive. In a total stunner, the Warriors brought the brooms out and swept the Bullets.
7. 2016 NBA Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors Closing NBA Finals betting lines: Cavaliers (+180)/Warriors (-220)
Series result: Cavaliers, 4-3
Final MVP: LeBron James
The Golden State Warriors put together the best regular-season record in NBA history in 2015-16 -- finishing the year at 73-9 -- and were the odds-on favorite to win the title. Facing the Cavaliers, the Warriors met all expectations by jumping out to a 2-0 series lead. After taking Game 4 on the road, Golden State had full control of the series. However, things took a controversial turn when forward and defensive stopper Draymond Green received a Game 5 suspension that still raises questions to this day. The Cavaliers took advantage of the Green-less Warriors, which gave them life and momentum. Cleveland went on to also win Games 6 and 7 in rallying from a 3-1 deficit to win the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers’ improbable comeback will go down as one of the best Finals series of all-time.
6. 2014 NBA Finals: San Antonio Spurs vs. Miami Heat Closing NBA Finals betting lines: Spurs (-125)/Heat (+105)
Series result: Spurs, 4-1
Final MVP: Kawhi Leonard
After taking his talents to South Beach, LeBron James and the Miami Heat were finally living up to James’ promise of multiple championships. In 2014, the Heat were looking for a third straight NBA title. Unfortunately for them, Miami ran into Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs, who absolutely picked the Heat apart. Although the Spurs were favored to win the series, it was still an upset in many people’s eyes, since the Heat were back-to-back defending NBA champions. James averaged 28.2 points per game -- the most of any player in the 2014 Finals. The Spurs won on the strength of their pure team basketball that saw nearly six San Antonio players each average double-digit scoring totals in the series.
5. 2019 NBA Finals: Toronto Raptors Golden State Warriors Closing NBA Finals betting lines: Raptors (+225)/Warriors (-275)
Series result: Raptors. 4-2
Final MVP: Kawhi Leonard
The Golden State Warriors’ quest for a three-peat was looking great in 2019 as they appeared headed for a fourth championship in five years. Already an established dynasty, the Warriors were the odds-on favorites to win the NBA Finals. Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors were looking for their first ever NBA championship. Led by Kawhi Leonard -- or the Golden State Warriors killer, as he’s known to Warriors fans – the Raptors got the last laugh. Leonard averaged 28.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game during the series, which saw him roll to a 36-point performance in Game 4 on the road that helped put the Raptors up 3-1. Toronto had five more players who also averaged double-digit scoring in the series -- making for a complete team effort that brought Toronto its first title.
4. 2021 NBA Finals: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Phoenix Suns Closing NBA Finals betting lines: Bucks (+145)/Suns (-165)
Series result: Bucks, 4-2
Final MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo
The quest for Giannis Antetokounmpo’s first NBA title had a chance to end happily after Antetokounmpo finally reached the NBA Finals in 2021. The Bucks, however, would have to beat Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns, and many believed it was Phoenix’s time to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy. After taking a 2-0 series lead, the Suns had full control. It looked like Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were finished, and some critics were even questioning his greatness. However, Antetokounmpo’s 41-point performance in Game 3 lifted the Bucks to victory and silenced a lot of the doubters. It also provided a spark for the Bucks. Milwaukee would go on to win the next three games, including a 50-point closeout performance from Antetokounmpo in Game 6. Antetokounmpo averaged 35.2 points and 13.2 rebounds per game in the 2021 NBA Finals and was named the series MVP.
3. 1969 NBA Finals: Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers Closing NBA Finals betting lines: n/a
Series result: Celtics, 4-3
Final MVP: Jerry West
You typically don’t see a team win eight titles in a decade and then get written off after making it back to the NBA Finals, but that was the case in 1969, when many experts believed that the Boston Celtics’ age had finally caught up to them. The Celtics were matched up against a star-studded and reloaded Los Angeles Lakers team that had added superstar Wilt Chamberlin, and no one was giving Boston a chance. After the Lakers took the first two games, a sense that the Celtics would lose really started to set in. However, Boston wouldn’t back down. The Celtics won Games 3 and 4, and the teams split the next two games to force a decisive Game 7. The biggest mistake of the series was made prior to game 7 in Los Angeles by the person who decided to place celebratory balloons in the rafters for the Lakers. This only gave the Celtics more motivation, and they would go on to win Game 7 and prove they were still the best team of the decade. Despite losing, Lakers guard Jerry West had one of the best NBA Finals performances of all-time in averaging 37.9 points per game and was named the NBA Finals MVP. West remains the only player in NBA history to be named the Finals MVP while playing for the losing team.
2. 2011 NBA Finals: Dallas Mavericks vs. Miami Heat Closing NBA Finals betting lines: Mavericks (+160)/Heat (-180)
Series result: Mavericks, 4-2
Final MVP: Dirk Nowitzki
When LeBron James made the decision heard around the world to “take his talents to South Beach,” he also guaranteed multiple championships for Miami. Oh yes, we all heard the “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven…” championships speech when he was introduced in his Heat jersey. The prediction looked great when the Heat reached the NBA Finals in the first year of their James-led superteam. The only problem was they ran into a Dallas Mavericks team playing at a higher level. Led by Dirk Nowitzki, who averaged 26 points per game in that series, the Mavericks scored an improbable upset. Dallas guard Jason Terry was the X-factor in the 2011 Finals, thanks to his remarkable shooting throughout the postseason. He shot just shy of 40 percent from 3-point range in the Finals win over the Heat.
1. 2004 NBA Finals: Detroit Pistons vs. Los Angeles Lakers Closing NBA Finals betting lines: Pistons (+500)/Lakers (-700)
Series result: Pistons, 4-1
Final MVP: Chauncey Billups
After three-peating as NBA champions from 2000 to 2002, the Los Angeles Lakers were back in the NBA Finals in 2004, having added depth with two Hall of Famers in Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Combining those two greats with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant made L.A. a powerhouse, and no one in the world thought Detroit would win a game against the Lakers, let alone the series. Los Angeles ran through its competition that year and everyone expected them to win the NBA championship. Pistons guard Richard Hamilton told his team before the series that he couldn’t lose another championship game to Kobe Bryant. As high school students, Hamilton and Bryant had faced each other back in the Pennsylvania State Championship game, which Bryant’s Lower Merion team won.
Parameters of Rankings Consideration of many past NBA Finals and the performances of some great teams, as well as the narratives surrounding the series, inspired the creation of this list of the top eight NBA Finals upsets. This final list features some of the greatest NBA Finals games of all time, and all eight series listed here were must-watches in the year they took place.
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