Each series had mitigating circumstances — injuries, bad matchups or short series — that helped the underdog win. Here’s a look at each of them:
1994: Denver Nuggets upset Seattle SuperSonics, 3-2
The iconic image of the Nuggets upsetting the dominant Sonics — future Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo lying on the ground holding the ball above his head with both hands — is what everyone remembers, but this truly was a monumental upset. Seattle, led by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, won 63 games and had the best record in the NBA’s first season without Michael Jordan in the playoffs. While Seattle would eventually make it to the Finals with this core — in 1995-96, when it pushed Jordan’s 72-win Bulls to six games — this was probably their best chance to win a title, and they didn’t even get out of the first round. Denver recovered from a 2-0 deficit to take the best-of-five series.
1999: New York Knicks upset Miami Heat, 3-2
This series also has an iconic image: Allan Houston’s one-handed running jump shot to win Game 5, which completed one of the defining rivalries of the decade. Because of the lockout-shortened 50-game season, this wasn’t a typical 1-8 matchup, and New York made Miami pay. The Knicks would also become the only one of these five teams to win more than one round, advancing all the way to the NBA Finals before losing to the San Antonio Spurs in five games.
2007: Golden State Warriors upset Dallas Mavericks, 4-2
The “We Believe” Warriors had one of the most eclectic rosters in NBA history, with Don Nelson as coach of a team anchored by Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, Monta Ellis, Matt Barnes and Al Harrington. Dallas, which had lost to the Heat in the Finals a year before, won a league-leading 67 games that season, as Dirk Nowitzki earned his lone MVP award. But this was a classic instance of the old adage that styles make fights, and Golden State’s ability to play small — combined with a rabid crowd at Oracle Arena that got behind the Warriors making the playoffs for the first time in 13 years — was enough to help the Warriors sweep the three games in Oakland and take the series in six.
2011: Memphis Grizzlies upset Antonio Spurs, 4-2
The final two entries on this list came to pass because of injuries to key players. For the Spurs, it was because of a sprained elbow for Manu Ginobili, which caused him to miss the opener, a game San Antonio then lost. And while Ginobili came back and played in the remainder of the series — and played well, too — that opening game turned out to be the only one the home team lost, as the Grizzlies not only won their first playoff game ever but their first playoff series, as well.
2012: Philadelphia 76ers upset Chicago Bulls, 4-2
Unlike Ginobili, who didn’t have his career significantly altered by that injury in 2011, the course of NBA history was altered drastically when Derrick Rose drove to the hoop in the final minute of Game 1 — which Chicago was winning comfortably at the time — and came crashing down to the floor, having torn his anterior cruciate ligament. That turned out to be one of a series of knee injuries for Rose, robbing the Bulls of the chance to truly contend with LeBron James and the Heat. The Bulls hung around for six games against Philadelphia before losing. The Sixers then pushed the Boston Celtics to seven games in the second round before eventually losing. Ironically, this success for Philadelphia caused the organization to make a swing to go to the next level by trading for Andrew Bynum that summer. When that turned into a disaster, the front office was cleaned out, leading the way for Sam Hinkie — and the beginnings of the team Philadelphia now has in place.