NBA, NBA Playoffs

Yes, a #7 seed has defeated a #2 seed in NBA playoffs (but none of them ever went on to win an NBA Title)

Throughout NBA playoff history, we’ve witnessed many instances where a team that struggled throughout the regular season and sometime after the NBA All-Star break, suddenly gels together. Despite being 70% into the season, the team feels fresh after stringing together several wins. They then ride that new momentum into the postseason.

Sometimes that team will meet a much higher seed whose trajectory is going the opposite direction. That’s what happened in the 2023 NBA Playoffs when the 7th seeded Los Angeles Lakers, who had to get into the larger bracket via the Play-In Tournament, took down a Memphis Grizzlies team that sat near the top of the standings the entire season.

Surprisingly, there has been as number of times a 7th seeded team has won a First Round series as there has been an #8 seed upsetting a the #1 seed.

Every #7 Seed to Upset a #2 Seed in a Playoff Series

With the Lakers series win, this is only the sixth time that a  #7 seed has eliminated a #2 seed since the NBA playoffs went to a 16-team bracket format. Since we already talked up the Lakers recent upset of the Memphis Grizzlies above let’s look at that series and go backwards chronologically where the seven seeds upset two seeds in NBA playoff history.

2023: LA Lakers upset Memphis 4-2

The first time in thirteen seasons since ta 7-2 upset, the Los Angeles Lakers would add their franchise to that list. Led by Anthony Davis and LeBron James and an unlikely balanced attack from second year player Austin Reaves, D’Angelo Russell and Rui Hachimura, the Lakers took down the Memphis Grizzlies in spectacular fashion. The Lakers would close out the series by a laughable 40 point margin.

The Lakers had been a hot mess for much of the season, but after they traded for Hachimura, and swapped Russell Westbrook for D’Angelo, Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt, the Lakers took off going 18-7 over the last 25 games. On the other side, Memphis was thrown off by injuries to Brandon Clarke and Steven Adams as well as self-inflicted drama from Ja Morant’s off-court situations and Dillon Brooks on-court shenanigans.

LeBron led the Lakers by averaging a double-double in the series with 22.4 points per game and 12.4 rebounds. AD wasn’t far behind with 21.8 points, 13.6 rebounds, and added 4.2 blocks per game.

2010: San Antonio 4-2 over Dallas Mavericks 

Prior to the Lakers upsetting the Grizzlies, the previous instance of a #7 seed upsetting a #2 seed in the playoffs happened in the 2009-10 season when the San Antonio Spurs eliminated the Dallas Mavericks in six games. Though this is technically a 7 seed winning, there was only a five game difference in their regular season records: Mavericks finished 55-27 while the Spurs had a regular season record of 50-32.

In that series, Manu Ginóbili led the Spurs in scoring with 19.8 points per game with Tim Duncan putting up 18.2 points and 9.5 rebounds. Despite this disappointing post season performance, the good news for Mavs fans is that Dirk Nowitzki and gang would win the NBA Championship the next season.

1998: New York Knicks over Miami Heat 3-2 

The New York Knicks vs. the Miami Heat might the NBA’s second biggest rivalry. This 1998 series is a part of that bad blood as the only #7 seeded Knicks to win the decisive Game 5 in a first-round series (when first round series were only five games) and they did so decisively 98-81. Not only that, there was a secondary storyline between former Charlotte Hornets teammates Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning.

After going down 2-1 in the series against the Miami Heat, the Knicks bounced back to win the next two games and the series where neither team scored over 100 points in the entire series. Allan Houston led the Knicks in scoring with an average of 23.2 points followed by Johnson’s 20.8 points.

First Round Upsets
Year #7 seed (record) #2 seed (record) series Champion?
1987 Seattle SuperSonics Dallas Mavericks 3-1 No
1989 Golden State Warriors Utah Jazz 3-0 No
1991 Golden State Warriors San Antonio Spurs 3-1 No
1998 New York Knicks Miami Heat 3-2 No
2010 San Antonio Spurs Dallas Mavericks 4-2 No
2023 Los Angeles Lakers Memphis Grizzlies 4-2 No

1991: Golden State Warriors upset #2 Spurs 3-1

The Warriors managed to pull off the #7-#2 upset twice in three seasons. This was the Run TMC era Warriors that eliminated the #2 seed San Antonio Spurs in four games. The Warriors had a regular season record of 44-38, while the Spurs had a record of 55-27. Despite having David Robinson’s imprint over every game, it was Mullin’s consistent scoring (25.3 ppg) that led the Warriors to the series win.

1989: Golden State Warriors sweep Utah Jazz

The Golden State Warriors, led by Chris Mullin, were the first and only team to sweep a number two seed. Averaging 32.7 points, Mullin, Mitch Richmond (25.7) and Terry Teagle (19.3) proved too much firepower for Karl Malone, John Stockton and the #2 seeded Utah Jazz as they were overwhelmed in three games.

The Warriors came into the 1989 playoffs with a win/loss record that was eight games worse than the #2 Utah Jazz who finished with a 51-31 record in the regular season. That apparently meant nothing as the Warriors swept the Jazz.  Oddsmakers would have certainly been better off playing slots from Elk Studios than wager money on that first round matchup.

1987: Seattle Sonics take down #2 Dallas Mavs

The Seattle Supersonics were the first #7 seed to pull off the 7-2 upset in NBA history. With a losing regular season record of 39-43, the Sonics came in with very little momentum, but had the big three of Dale Ellis, Tom Chambers and Xaiver McDaniel.

Even though the Sonics lost the first game, Dallas couldn’t stop Ellis, Chambers and McDaniel as all three averaged over 22 points for the series. They would win the next three games to take down the #2 seed Dallas Mavericks in four games. Dale Ellis led the Sonics in scoring with 29.2 points per game while Chambers and McDaniels averaged 24.5 and 22.8.

While these upsets are relatively rare, they remind us that anything can happen in the NBA playoffs, and that even lower-ranked teams have the potential to pull off a shocking upset against higher-ranked opponents.

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