10 Best Opening-Round Series in NBA Playoff History

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April 19th, 2011 in Entertainment, Fun Stuff

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As a sports fan, it doesn't get much better than early spring. During the course of a few weeks, there's March Madness, spring training and opening day, the Masters, and, of course, the beginning of the NBA Playoffs. After a long and arduous 82-game season, we're treated to a veritable buffet of truly meaningful action. This year promises to be filled with drama, as marquee teams — such as the Lakers, Spurs, Celtics, Bulls and Heat — featuring marquee names will each vie for the championship, and the inclusion of teams — such as the upstart Thunder and new-look Knicks — add interesting storylines. It all starts in the first round, which has provided memorable, often overlooked series in years past. The ones listed below are the best (in our humble opinion) since the playoffs expanded to the current 16-team format in 1984. If we're lucky, we'll see an upset or duel this year worthy of placement on such a list in the future.

  1. 2009 — No. 2 Boston vs. No. 7 Chicago: When it comes to sheer drama, this one takes the cake. The Celtics were without one of their big three, Kevin Garnett, due to a knee injury that sidelined him for all but four games over the final two months of the season. The youthful Bulls, led by rookie phenom Derrick Rose, took full advantage, pushing the series to seven games. Four games reached overtime, and a total of seven overtime periods were tallied when it was all said and done. Ray Allen hit clutch shot after clutch shot, including the game-winner in game two and nine threes in his 51-point game six performance in a loss, ultimately leading the defending champs to the series victory.
  2. 1989 — No. 6 Chicago vs. No. 3 Cleveland: "The Shot" completed an early chapter in Michael Jordan's storied — and absolutely clutch — career and created yet another moment of Cleveland sports misery. After the teams traded wins in the first four games — game four featured a 50-point performance from Jordan in an overtime loss that extended the series — the fifth and final game took place in Cleveland. A close contest throughout, Jordan carried his team on his back, scoring 30 points in the second half. With six seconds remaining, he hit a jumper to give the Bulls the lead, which was followed by a well-executed inbounds play after a timeout that resulted in a Craig Ehlo layup with three seconds remaining. That set the stage for Jordan's buzzer beater over Ehlo and the ensuing celebratory leap that has since been a staple of every Jordan career highlight film. The series victory was somewhat of a surprise given that the Bulls lost all six games to the Cavs during the regular season, though the Cavs were battered by injuries come playoff time.
  3. 1994 — No. 8 Denver vs. No. 1 Seattle: It was the first time in NBA history that a No. 8 seed defeated a No. 1 seed, a remarkable occurrence in a sport in which the "best team" almost always wins. The mere 42-40 Nuggets didn't seem to stand a chance versus the 63-19 Gary Payton-and Shawn Kemp-led Sonics, who finished the regular season with the league's best record. After the first two games of the series, the Nuggets lost by a combined 34 points. Surprisingly, they returned the favor during the next two games at home before a deafening crowd in McNichols Arena, winning by a combined 26 points. In the fifth and deciding game in Seattle, the Nuggets held off the Sonics in overtime, thanks in part to Dikembe Mutombo's eight blocks, which gave him 31 in the series, a five-game series record. As the final buzzer sounded, he fell to the floor, emphatically clutching the ball over his head in joy and disbelief.
  4. 2007 — No. 8 Golden State vs. No. 1 Dallas: The Baron Davis-led Warriors weren't satisfied with just making the playoffs after a 13-year drought. From the first game of the series, a 97-85 Warriors win, it was evident they held a competitive edge with the leadership of Don Nelson, the Mavs' former coach, and the confidence that resulted from sweeping the regular season series. The Mavs, who had the league's best record at 67-15, were shell-shocked — the combined margin of their first round losses was 59 points. The sixth and final game was highlighted by a third quarter 18-0 run by the Warriors, seven three-pointers from Stephen Jackson and just eight points on 2-13 shooting from Dirk Nowitzki. The Warriors became the third No. 8 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed — the Knicks were the second to do it with their win over the Heat in 1999 — and the first to do it in a seven-game series. Almost as memorable as the upset itself were the fervent (understatement) crowds at Oracle Arena, which gave the Warriors a true home-court advantage.
  5. 1984 — No. 6 New Jersey vs. No. 3 Philadelphia: Considered one of the best teams in NBA history, the 1983 76ers lost only one game during the entire playoffs. A year later, the playoffs featured a new format in which four more teams would compete and the first round bye was eliminated. Anchored by stars Moses Malone, Julius Erving and Maurice Cheeks, the Sixers weren't supposed to have any trouble in the opening round versus the Nets. Behind Michael Ray Richardson, Darryl Dawkins and Buck Williams, the Nets won the first two games in Philadelphia by a combined 19 points, dropped the next two games at home, and took game five in a close-fought affair. It's the only time in playoff history the road team won every game in a series.
  6. 1999 — No. 3 Utah vs. No. 6 Sacramento: As one team was beginning its decline from the top of the Western Conference, another was beginning its ascension. Reaching the playoffs for just the second time since 1986, the Kings were newly rebuilt, featuring Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, flashy rookie point guard Jason Williams and veteran coach Rick Adelman. On the other hand, the Jazz, the two-time defending Western Conference champs, relied on 15-year and 14-year veterans John Stockton and Karl Malone, and coach and perennial winner Jerry Sloan. The difference was evident in game one when the Jazz won by 30 points. The Kings, however, proceeded to take the next two games, and were on the verge of pulling the series upset in game four before the usually raucous crowd in Arco Arena. But John Stockton's long two-point shot in the waning seconds saved the Jazz and enabled them to take the deciding game five in Salt Lake City.
  7. 1991 — No. 2 Boston vs. No. 7 Indiana: The 56-26 Celtics accomplished their position with a mixture of old and new talent. The frontline still consisted of Bird, McHale and Parrish, but arguably the team's best player was guard Reggie Lewis, whose consistent play throughout the first round enabled it to hang with the upstart 41-41 Pacers. The fifth and final game, though, belonged to the 34-year-old Bird, who went toe-to-toe with sharpshooter Chuck Person in the Boston Garden. Despite an ailing back and an additional neck injury he suffered in the second quarter, Bird matched Person with 32 points in just 33 minutes, once again willing the Celtics to a playoff series victory.
  8. 2006 — No. 2 Phoenix vs. No. 7 LA Lakers: Led by two-time MVP Steve Nash, the Suns' up-tempo, run-and-gun style of play was transforming the NBA. The Lakers could score too, but most of that responsibility fell on Kobe Bryant, who averaged 35 points per game during the regular season, most notably scoring 81 points in a game versus the Raptors. En route to a 3-1 series lead, his best work occurred in game four, when he made a layup to send the game into overtime and a game-winning pull-up jumper. It was the high point of the series for the Lakers because they wouldn't win another game. Fifty points from Kobe in game six wasn't enough to close it out, and game seven was a forgettable 30-point massacre.
  9. 1993 — No. 1 Phoenix vs. No. 8 LA Lakers: Favored to emerge from the Western conference and challenge the two-time defending champion Chicago Bulls, the 62-20 Suns, who boasted the best record in the league, certainly didn't expect much of a fight from the 39-43 Lakers. With James Worthy, Byron Scott, Sam Perkins and AC Green, the aging remnants of Showtime, the Lakers stunned the Suns in the first two games of the series in Phoenix, forcing Charles Barkey's troop to have to win three consecutive games to advance and avoid becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 8 seed in playoff history. After winning two in Los Angeles, the Suns returned home to win game five, beginning their difficult run to the Finals.
  10. 1987 — No. 7 Seattle vs. No. 2 Dallas: Twenty years before their surprise loss to the Warriors, the 55-27 Mavs were stunned in four games by the 39-43 Sonics, becoming the first No. 2 seed to lose to a No. 7 seed. It happened rather swiftly. Following a 151-129 blowout win by the Mavs in game one, the Sonics eked out two-point victory in game two, taking away the Mavs' home-court advantage. Before their always-rowdy fans in Seattle Center Coliseum, the Sonics ended the series by winning games three and four by 10 and 26 points — it didn't help the Mavs that Mark Aguirre, their leading scorer during the regular season, was battling strep throat. The Sonics proceeded to upset the defending Western Conference champion Rockets in a difficult six-game series in the semis, advancing to play the Lakers in the conference finals. One of the most improbable runs in playoff history, few fans of 1980s NBA basketball have forgotten the work of the Sonics' dynamic trio of Tom Chambers, Dale Ellis and Xavier McDaniel.

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