Even the most arduent Laker haters never saw this coming. A sweep? In the second round? To the Dallas Mavericks? There was no history to back it up, no real direct signs, nothing. L.A. had destroyed Dallas in their final matchup of the regular season, and most figured this playoff meeting would be much of the same. If anything, it was going to be just a bump in the road as the Lakers went about trying to win a third title. Want to know just how surprising it was? Any time a team trails 3-0 in a best-of-seven and people still actually believe they can come back, you know it’s beyond shocking.
But it didn’t happen and now the Mavs are moving on with an impressive 4-0 sweep. But don’t act like this hasn’t happened before. It has. There were surprising sweeps before, and there will be more in the future.
So besides this colossal L.A. collapse, here are the other top-10 most surprising four-game sweeps in NBA Playoff history.
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10. Chicago over Orlando, 1996 Eastern Conference Finals
Yes, the Bulls had won an NBA-record 72 games and fielded one of the best teams of all-time. Yes, they were coming for revenge after the Magic had ended their season the year before. Yes, most everyone expected the Bulls to win. But no one thought they were going to run away and sweep Orlando into a funeral home. This was hyped as the NBA’s newest, greatest rivalry, one that was shaping up to be in play for years to come. During the regular season, the Magic beat the Bulls without Shaquille O’Neal and generally played them well with the big man in the lineup. But Michael Jordan and the Bulls went to a playoff gear that Orlando couldn’t match with Horace Grant out (who had been the difference in the 1995 matchup). Once the Magic blew an 18-point lead in Game 2, it was over.
9. Chicago over Miami, 2007 Eastern Conference First Round
The youth of the Bulls gave them some huge mismatches (Ben Gordon, Luol Deng) against Miami’s older lineup. They also had home-court advantage after finishing the year with 49 wins. But because the Heat were coming off a championship season, and had been killed by injuries throughout the regular season, Chicago came in as underdogs. The Heat competed as hard as they could, but it was obvious almost immediately how many problems they had defending a team as young as Chicago. A few people thought the Bulls could win. No one expected them to sweep a team with the reigning Finals MVP in Dwyane Wade and Shaq.
8. Utah over L.A. Lakers, 1998 Western Conference Finals
If you can think back to the 1997-98 season, the Lakers were absolutely loaded with young talent. They had four All-Stars, all of whom were 26 years old or younger. They had an exciting style of play and ran through much of the league during the regular season to a 61-21 record. More importantly, they finished as easily the league’s hottest team, winning 22 of their last 25 regular-season games before rolling through the first two rounds of the playoffs, disintegrating Seattle in the conference semifinals. But none of it mattered against Utah, who not only surprised the basketball world by beating L.A. 112-77 in Game 1, they went on to win four straight. Before this sweep, many figured we were going to get Chicago/Los Angeles in the Finals: Shaq and a young Kobe vs. MJ.
7. New York over Baltimore, 1969 Eastern Conference Semifinals
In what became a bitter rivalry between the two East Coast cities, the Knicks pulled off the biggest upset of the 1969 Playoffs. For six season, these two teams faced each other 36 times in the playoffs. At the time, Baltimore was perhaps the league’s most explosive offensive team while the Knicks excelled on the other end. It had all the makings of a great matchup, and the Bullets were the top seed and winners of an NBA-high 57 games in 1969. Earl “the Pearl” Monroe (then with Baltimore) and Kevin Loughery put in some serious work and were the two leaders of a team that had six players average at least 11.8 points a game. But the Knicks had the core of a team that would go on to win two of the next four NBA championships and swept Baltimore into the summer fairly easily. Without Gus Johnson (injured), the Bullets couldn’t stop Willis Reed, who put up 35 and 19 in Game 3 and was even better in the final game (43 points, 17 rebounds).
6. Seattle over Houston, 1996 Western Conference Semifinals
If you need a series to compare this Dallas/L.A. one to, this is it. In fact, it’s almost eerily similar. The Rockets were a veteran team coming off two consecutive NBA championships and had meandered through the season to 48 wins and a sixth seed. Meanwhile Seattle was still trying to shake the perception that they were chokers, having consistently failed to live up to expectations in the playoffs (especially two years earlier when they became the first top seed to lose a first round series to an eighth-seeded team). Everyone believed in Houston because, guess what, they had limped into the playoffs the year before and won the whole thing. They had the experience and the matchups to beat the Sonics. Game 1 was a 33-point disaster, but every other game was close. It just so happened that down the stretch, the Rockets couldn’t muster up the energy and heroics to win while Seattle had years of vented frustration to draw upon. Sound familiar?
5. Golden State over Washington, 1975 NBA Finals
One of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history. Washington had the league’s best record (60-22), and had an inside-out combination of Wes Unseld (led the NBA in rebounds per game) and Kevin Porter (led the NBA in assists per game), not to mention another all-time talent in Elvin Hayes. All that the Warriors had was Rick Barry, the best offense in the league but also a defense that was nearly just as bad (think Phoenix circa 2005) and an easily-overlooked 48-win season. Golden State was such an afterthought, they had to change the format of the series because the Warriors couldn’t use their arena during Memorial Day weekend. But somehow, they won four straight games by a total of 16 points, somehow riding their defense (held Washington under 100 points three times) while totally shutting down Hayes.
4. Houston over Orlando, 1995 NBA Finals
It’s amazing how different a series can look after one game. Coming into the Finals, the Rockets were just an overachieving sixth seed that had won only 47 regular-season games. Orlando was the future, a future that was pressing to become the present. Orlando had the home-court advantage, and jumped out to an enormous lead in Game 1. Then Nick Anderson happened and the Magic completely fell apart. The Magic, along with the Spurs, were the two best teams in the league in 1995. Funny, that even after they derailed San Antonio, no one thought the Rockets could take Orlando. They were wrong.
3. Milwaukee over Boston, 1983 Eastern Conference Semifinals
For nine years, the Celtics made it to at least the NBA’s final four every single time. The one time they didn’t was in 1983 when miraculously, they were sent home early by Milwaukee. The Bucks had some talent (Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief), but I think Boston had a little more (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish). Boston was blown out at home to start the series and then blown out again to end it. How shocking was it? The Bucks never did much of anything from then on while the Celtics used basically the same team to win a title the very next season.
2. Chicago over Detroit, 1991 Eastern Conference Finals
Now it might sound like heresy, but back in 1991, people still weren’t sure about MJ. The Bulls had finally passed Detroit over for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and everyone knew they were gaining on Detroit. But just as the basketball world always is, we were slow to claim Chicago the better team. When they met again to decide the winner of the East, the Bulls not only beat Detroit, they embarrassed them in four straight. Detroit, with all of their championship mettle, experience and grit would never get swept by the baby Bulls. That’s what everyone thought. It seems crazy, but most people believed more in the beat-up Pistons than in the coming-into-their-prime Bulls. Looking back, this was inevitable. Once Chicago realized the Pistons couldn’t control them or physically punish them anymore, it became a ridiculous mismatch.
1. Detroit over L.A. Lakers, 1989 NBA Finals
Talk about a passing of the torch. L.A. had beaten the Pistons in the 1988 NBA Finals and arrived in Detroit for Game 1 with a shiny new MVP trophy for Magic Johnson and 16-consecutive wins. The Lakers hadn’t lost for nearly two months and the Pistons still hadn’t proved they could win on the biggest stages. They had doubters. But all of that didn’t mattered as the Lakers got hammered in Game 1. Now, L.A. struggled with some severe injury problems during this series (Byron Scott missed much of the action and Johnson hurt himself during Game 2). Still, no one thought the champs would go this quietly especially since this marked the end of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s career. It sparked a new, two-year run of Detroit “Bad Boy” basketball.
What is the most surprising sweep in NBA Playoff history? Where does this L.A. loss rank?
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