The NBA doesn’t do upsets well.
Don’t take my word for it, here’s what baseball and analytics guru Bill James once said about the league:
That’s the real problem with the NBA … the best team is going to win in the long run, and everybody knows it. The season becomes a long, crushing battle in which, ultimately, you have no chance to escape justice … as opposed to college basketball, which is vastly more exciting.
He’s not wrong in the big picture — in the NBA favorite wins most of the time. That’s particularly true in the playoffs. That the best team wins may sound like the goal of any league, in reality we want random upsets, we like vulnerability.
We love seeing a Leicester City rise from obscurity to take the Barclay’s Premiere League and knock off the big money, big name clubs (you can watch them go for the title Sunday at 7:30 am ET on NBCSN when they face West Ham). Had you bet Leicester before the season you would have gotten 5000-1 odds they would take the Premiere League title. Now Leicester City on the doorstep of soccer history — arguably the greatest upset in sports history.
It’s not the same, but, the NBA has had a few great upsets.
The biggest playoff upset — the closest thing the NBA has to its own Leicester City — was the 2007 “We Believe” Golden State Warriors knocking off the Dallas Mavericks.
While Golden State is on top of the NBA world now, the Warriors of 2007 were in a very different place. Golden State had missed the playoffs for a dozen years before the 2006-07 season — they hadn’t made the playoffs since Chris Webber’s rookie season. That’s not easy to do in a league where more than half the teams make the postseason annually. Golden State had in Chris Cohan a man who would have been seen as the worst owner in the NBA and probably the worst owner in professional sports at the time had the Clippers’ Donald Sterling not been Secretariat at the Belmont with that title. Cohen had brought in the respected mad genius Don Nelson to coach his team that season, but he coached a team led by the mercurial Baron Davis and the unrepentant gunner that was young Monta Ellis. Midseason the Warriors made a big trade with the Pacers that brought in Stephen Jackson, Al Harrington, Sarunas Jasikevicius, and Josh Powell.
Despite the new players the Warriors fell to eight games below .500 before a run the last six weeks of the season saw them finish 42-40. The Warriors scraped into the playoffs as the eighth seed that season, playing at the fastest pace in the league. Their offense was good; their defense was not impressing anyone.
Going into the playoffs, the team’s marketing department adopted the slogan “we believe” and it was on T-shirts and banners that filled the building. The loyal and starved fans in the Bay Area did beleive.
The Warriors were matched against the Dallas Mavericks — a 67-win team led by MVP Dirk Nowitzki (he had a 50-40-90 season), a team that had lost just five games at home throughout the campaign. They were serious title contenders expected to roll through the first round… like Manchester United through Leicester.
In a move that now seems like foreshadowing of the current Warriors, Nelson unleashed a physical small-ball lineup on Dallas featuring Davis, Ellis, Jason Richardson, Jackson, and Harrington — their tallest player was 6’9″. The Warriors put five guys on the floor who could handle the ball, five guys who could space the floor and shoot the three. They overwhelmed the Mavericks — the Warriors ran off Dallas makes, they were feisty with Jackson and Matt Barnes off the bench, and Dallas couldn’t deal.
People also can forget how good — and how much fun to watch — a focused and in shape Baron Davis could be. He had 33 points, 14 rebounds, and 8 assists in a Game 1 Golden State win. When the series returned to Oakland for game three of the series, the long-starved and passionate Warriors fans unleashed the full fury of Oracle Arena on Dallas. Golden State won games three and four at home and led the series 3-1. Dallas took game five of the best-of-seven at home.
Game six at Oracle is still talked about as one of the great moments in Warrior’s history. Jackson drained seven threes on his way to 33 points, and during a 24-3 Golden State run in the third he was draining long balls and the crowd was raising the roof off that building. More importantly, Jackson was physical and had gotten in Nowitzki’s head (he was just 2-of-13 shooting that game).
Golden State won — the first eight seed to beat a one seed in a seven-game series in NBA history. We Believe worked and was etched into the history of the franchise.
This is the NBA, upsets don’t last long — the Warriors were manhandled by the Jazz in the second round, and that was the end of that run.
But not before the Warriors gave us the most improbable upset in NBA history.