Biggest NBA Upsets of All Time

A basketball captured in the air.

The NBA is one of the most thrilling events to watch in sports. The drama is intense as 30 professional franchises pit the best basketball players in the world against each other in the hope of qualifying for the postseason playoffs and emerging as ultimate victors. A lot of money goes into the game, with superstar players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and James Harden earning six-figure salaries as they win the hearts of legions of fans. The NBA also generates a lot of revenue – $8 billion dollars per season on average – and the NBA Finals are a highlight of the sporting year. An average of 7.5 million viewers in the United States watched the 2020 NBA Finals, while in-play online sports betting offers even further chances to connect.

Winning the NBA Finals is a truly epic achievement. The best-of-seven format is designed to really test which team is best. After the long haul of the season and the playoffs, it’s usually clear who is the sports betting favorite (this year, the Nets have the best NBA odds). But basketball is one of those sports where dreams sometimes come true and the underdog pulls through to claim the trophy. It’s those unforgettable moments that keep fans coming back for more. Read on for five of the most electrifying encounters that turned basketball on its head.

Washington Bullets vs Seattle SuperSonics, 1978

The Washington Bullets entered the 1978 NBA finals as the basketball betting underdogs, based on a dismal 44-38 record in the regular season. That didn’t mean they were a spent force – not with front-line players like Elvin Hayes, Bobby Dandridge, and West Unseld, who was a 55 percent shooter from the line during the playoffs. But the Seattle SuperSonics were in top form. They’d crushed the Los Angeles Lakers in three games, knocked out top-seeded defending champions the Portland Trail Blazers in six, and beat the Denver Nuggets in six at the Conference Finals.

The first six games were a tug of war, with Seattle winning the first game and both teams winning alternately after that. Game seven was climactic. Bullets guard and rising star Dennis Johnson missed every one out of 14 shots, while his fellow guard Gus Williams shot 4-for-12. SuperSonics blocking center Marvin “The Human Eraser” Webster and center Jack Sikma turned up the heat, scoring 27 and 21 points, respectively. With 90 seconds to go, Seattle had narrowed the lead from 11 points to four. Bullets forward-center Mitch Kupchak opened up the gap with a three-point play, but Fred Brown hit a short jumper for the SuperSonics, and Paul Silas cut the Bullets’ lead back down to 101–99 with a tip-in. Then Silas fouled Wes Unseld, who hit two free throws, and Dandridge sealed the game with a dunk.

Bullets coach Dick Motta said afterward, “What made the championship so great was that we weren’t supposed to win it. We came a long way. Most people didn’t give us a chance, but I felt all along we could. I really did.”

Denver Nuggets vs LA Clippers NBA match.

Denver Nuggets vs Seattle Supersonics, 1994

One of the biggest upsets in sports history occurred in 1994, when the Denver Nuggets beat the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs. Denver’s unimpressive 42–40 regular-season record meant the SuperSonics should have walked it, but the Nuggets rebounded from a 2–0 deficit to make a mockery of the NBA odds. It was the first time a top-seeded team lost to an eighth-seeded team in the NBA playoffs.

The SuperSonics won the first two games by double-digit victory margins, but the Nuggets won game three comfortably and tied the series with an overtime win in game four. Now they had to beat Seattle on their home ground, the Seattle Center Coliseum. Nuggets point guard Robert Pack showed the way by going head-to-head with his counterpart Gary Payton and leading Denver’s offense to a 98–94 overtime victory. But it was Nuggets defender Dikembe Mutombo who really stood out, with 15 rebounds and eight blocks in his 45 minutes of play. The photo of Mutombo dropping to the floor while clutching the ball is one of the most memorable images in basketball history.

Golden State Warriors vs Dallas Mavericks, 2007

Some people say that the last great underdog in the NBA was the Golden State Warriors team of 2007. Their victory over the first-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs defied all NBA betting logic. It wasn’t only that the Warriors were the eighth-seeded team. There was also no legitimate reason for them to win. The Mavericks were coming off one of the best regular seasons ever, with 67 wins and a +9.1 net rating. Dallas power forward Dirk Nowitzki would be league MVP that year. The Warriors, by contrast, were just two games above .500. But the “We Believe” team of Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Monta Ellis, Stephen Jackson, Matt Barnes, Al Harrington and Andris Biedrins proved that the NBA odds are there to be beaten.

A pair of 30-point performances from Davis startled the Mavericks in the first two games and put the Warriors in front. Four games later, they were leading the top seeds 3–1. Nowitzki had to respond with 30 points and 12 rebounds in game five to avoid elimination. But Golden State didn’t miss the chance to close out the Mavericks at home in game six.

The first half was tight, but the “We Believe” Warriors outscored their opponents 36–15 in the third quarter. The crowd at Oracle Arena went into a frenzy as Jackson scored 33 points from the field, with seven triples from beyond the arc. Nowitzki’s eight points on 2-of-13 shooting weren’t enough to save the day for Dallas. Double-doubles from Davis, Barnes and Biedrins helped clinch a stunning 111–86 victory. The impossible had occurred. The Warriors had dispatched the title favorites in the first series of the playoffs with an average victory margin of 14.8 points.

Stephen Curry high-fives Draymond Green on the basketball court.

Cleveland Cavaliers vs Golden State Warriors, 2016

The Golden State Warriors entered their 70th NBA season as defending NBA champions and were sports betting favorites to win the finals. They had set the best-ever regular-season record of 73–9, resulting in Stephen Curry receiving the 2015–2016 MVP (Most Valuable Player) title by unanimous vote. The Warriors had also broken more than 25 NBA records and 10 franchise records, including most wins ever in a season. But the Warriors’ dream of ultimate victory turned into one of the biggest NBA upsets as they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games.

The Cleveland franchise had never won an NBA championship before. The only star players they had going into the playoffs were LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Everybody expected the Warriors to tear Cleveland apart. They started well and won the first two games. Cleveland came back to win game three, but the Warriors were all over them in game four. LeBron and Kyrie denied the Warriors the opportunity to close out the series in game five by scoring 41 points each. The Cavaliers went on to win game six at home and tie the series.

The Warriors were determined to win game seven and dominated for most of the match. But an expert block from James and Irving’s three-point shooting accuracy from beyond the arc turned that around. Suddenly, the Cavaliers were ahead, and the Warriors had no answers. The Cavaliers won 93–89, while the Warriors became the first team in the history of the NBA Finals to throw away a 3–1 lead.

Indiana Pacers vs Oklahoma City Thunder, 2021

One of the big NBA upsets this year was the Indiana Pacers’ 152–95 road win against Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma. It was the biggest point difference in NBA history for a road team, surpassing the previous road team record set by the Boston Celtics when they beat the Chicago Bulls 133–77 in 2018. It was also the most points that the Pacers had scored in a game since joining the NBA in 1976.

Indiana forward Domantas Sabonis returned after missing six consecutive games due to injury. He had a triple-double in the first half and finished with 26 points, 19 rebounds, and 14 assists. Only Nikola Jokic and Russell Westbrook have had triple-doubles before halftime since play-by-play began in 1997–98. Sabonis also finished with the highest plus/minus of any player who recorded a triple-double in a game, overtaking Luka Doncic’s +45 from November 2019. The Pacers led by 67 points with 4:12 remaining, the NBA victory margin in the past 25 years.

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