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Top Five Greatest Underdog NBA Playoff Runs of All-Time

Jimmy Butler - NBA dfs lineup picks, daily fantasy basketball

The Miami Heat have shocked the whole sports world. After an inconsistent regular season, they upset the Bucks and the Knicks before going up 3-0 against the Celtics. The Celtics didn't give up easily, forcing a game seven, but they lost at home and now the eighth-seeded Miami Heat are in the NBA Finals.

Now, they have to face the dominant Denver Nuggets, and overcoming them will be a monumental task. But this Heat team has proven to us time and time again to never doubt them. And even if they lose, they have already booked their place in the history books among other legendary underdog playoff teams.

With that in mind, this article will look at the five greatest underdog playoff runs ever. Most of these teams didn't win a title, but they won the hearts of NBA fans around the globe.

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#5. 1994-95 Houston Rockets (47-35) (NBA Champions)

Let's start with the only team on this list that won a championship. The Rockets entered the 1995 season as the defending champs and were tied for having the second-best odds of winning the championship. Houston started the year off hot, winning their first nine games and starting 11-4, but after a minor injury to Hakeem Olajuwon, the team struggled in December, going 3-6 in that stretch. Hakeem had Rockets fans worried, as he looked a bit rusty but finished off 1994 in dominant fashion as he averaged 34.4 PPG in the last nine games of the calendar year to lead his team to eight wins. They were inconsistent until late March, even after the addition of Hall of Famer Clyde Drexler, as they lost a lot of games that they could have won (eight of their losses were by one possession). The Rockets lost a few more games after Hakeem suffered from anemia, but the team got fully healthy for the Playoffs.

In the postseason, they faced the Jazz, who had won 60 games that season. The Jazz had the Rockets on the ropes after a win in game three, but Houston won two in a row to move on to round two against Charles Barkley's Suns. The Suns went up 3-1 and things looked very bleak for the Rockets, as a 3-1 comeback had only happened four times by that point, but the Rockets somehow came back and won in game seven by just one point to set up a showdown for the ages, against NBA MVP David Robinson and the 62-win Spurs. Hakeem wanted to prove that he was still the best player in the league and demolished Robinson in the series. At times, it looked like Hakeem was playing an entirely different sport. They faced off against the young Magic led by Shaq and Penny Hardaway in the Finals, but they were morally depleted after Nick Anderson missed four free throws in a row. After that, Hakeem outplayed Shaq, and the Rockets won in four, and Rudy Tomjanovich's men became NBA champions.


#4. 1980-81 Houston Rockets (40-42) (Lost NBA Finals in six)

Speaking of Rudy Tomjanovich, he was also a part of another famous NBA underdog team, but this time as a player. We all know about the punch that changed (and almost ended) Tomjanovich's life, but his comeback story is less talked about. He was an all-star the next year and played until 1980-81. In his final season, he was a solid contributor, and so was his friend Calvin Murphy, but this team was all about the late, great Moses Malone. Malone averaged 27.8 points and 14.8 rebounds per game, with 5.9 of them being offensive rebounds. Malone could have legitimately won three MVPs in a row if the Rockets had a better record, as Malone would go on to win the next two MVPs consecutively.

In the playoffs, they faced the defending NBA champion Lakers, who lost game three after Magic Johnson had a terrible series and air-balled the potential game-tying shot. In the second round, they faced off against "Iceman" George Gervin and the Spurs. The series went to seven, but Calvin Murphy turned back the clock with a 42-point performance in the final game to reach the Conference Finals. They played against the Kings, who were underdogs in their own right and took care of them pretty easily, only losing one game, and just like that, the 1981 Rockets became the first (and only) team since 1959 to make the Finals with a losing record. In the Finals, they fought hard, but couldn't win despite a below-average showing from Larry Bird and the rest of the Celtics.


#3. 1986-87 Seattle SuperSonics (39-43) (Lost WCF in four)

This is the only team on the list that didn't make the Finals, but they are truly one of the best underdogs ever. The Sonics had the worst pre-season odds to win the title. Yes, they were dead last. That'd be the equivalent of the Rockets making the Conference Finals this season (they went 22-60 instead). They already had Xavier McDaniel and Tom Chambers but added little-known Mavs G/F Dale Ellis. Ellis was just a role player who averaged around eight points a night in Dallas but broke out in Seattle. He averaged 24.9 points per game in his first year in Seattle and easily took home the Most Improved Player award, while McDaniel and Chambers also averaged over 23 points each, putting together the rare three-player 20 PPG season.

The Sonics were blown out by 22 in game one of their first-round series against Ellis' former team Dallas but didn't give up as they won the next three games in dominant fashion. They'd then face the defending western champion Rockets, who were looking to get back to the Finals, but the Sonics went up 3-1 and finished the job in game six, moving to the Conference Finals against all odds. They played well in the first three games against the eventual champion Lakers, but lost all three games and lost decisively in game four to get eliminated from championship contention.


#2. 1998-99 New York Knicks (27-23) (Lost NBA Finals in five)

Ah yes, the 1999 Knicks. Now that the Heat has made the Finals as the eighth seed, a lot of people have been talking about this Knicks squad, as they were previously the only team to make the playoffs as the eighth seed. This team had a lot of memorable players in different stages of their careers. A 36-year-old Patrick Ewing, a young Marcus Camby, prime Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell (who was trying to come back after his disgraceful exit from the Warriors), and Larry Johnson who still had a bit left in the tank despite many injuries. Fun fact, the father of current Knicks superstar Jalen Brunson (Rick Brunson) was also on this team. The team was very inconsistent that year, as they had to win six of their last eight games just to qualify for the postseason.

But it was magic once they got there. They faced their bitter rivals, the Miami Heat, in the first round, and won the elimination game thanks to Allan Houston's game-winner. They were feeling pretty confident after that moment and proceeded to sweep the Hawks in round two. Now, it was time for them to face another bitter rival, the Pacers and Reggie Miller. The Knicks stole game one but Reggie Miller made two last-second free throws to tie the series at 1-1. Now, remember what I said about Larry Johnson having a bit left in the tank? Well, he proved that in game three, by scoring on a game-winning four-point play to win game three for New York. After that big confidence boost, the Knicks would go on to win the series and make the Finals. In the Finals, the Spurs won in a series that was closer than what people remember.


#1. 2019-20 Miami Heat (44-29) (Lost NBA Finals in six)

This isn't Jimmy Butler and the Heat's first rodeo. In Jimmy's first year in Miami, he took a Heat squad that had gone 39-43 without him straight to the Finals. Before the start of the season, they had the 14th-best odds of winning the championship and were given a 2% chance of making the Finals by FiveThirtyEight. That percentage didn't change once the regular season was over, as four other Eastern teams were given better chances of coming out of the East (Bucks, Celtics, Raptors, Sixers). Goran Dragic was solid as always, as he transitioned to the sixth-man role. Bam Adebayo took the leap from promising youngster to all-star in his third season. Erik Spoelstra utilized undrafted gems Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson to perfection, while Jae Crowder and rookie Tyler Herro were great too.

They ended "Bubble" T.J. Warren in round one, before embarrassing the Bucks in the second round. They faced the Celtics in the Conference Finals, as they went up 3-1, and managed to win in game six to close out the series. They got unlucky in the Finals, as they lost Dragic and Adebayo to injuries, and despite Butler trying his best (and Danny Green missing a wide-open championship-sealing three), the Lakers won in six. The Heat are now hoping that this year, things can be different. Because although these Cinderella runs are nice, they mean nothing without a ring.

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