Thursday, June 11, 2015

Greatest Upset in NBA Final History Brewing?

Cleveland stand two games away from the crowning achievement of LeBron’s career and an end to the city’s 51-year title drought. And they can take inspiration from the fact that the winner of Game 3 in an NBA Finals series tied at 1-1 has gone on to win that series 84% of the time (according to Elias Sports Bureau). They might also consider some of the heartbreak the city has felt over the past half century, including the move (to Baltimore), the fumble (by Byner), the catch (by Mays), the drive (by Denver), the decision (by Lebron), the shot (by Jordan in 89 and 93), the blown save (by Jose Mesa in the 9th inning of Game 7 of the 1997 WS up 2-1) and a whole cavalcade of others. Looking specifically at LeBron, he couldn’t even win a game the first time he took Cleveland to the Finals way back in 2007 and only went two for four in Finals with the Miami Heat “tepid” dynasty. This year, with three Cavs starters done for the year, playing a team that had the best offense AND best defense most of the season along with the league MVP (and arguably one of the best shooters in NBA history, if he keeps this pace up), are somehow 2-1 up, and a floating jumper away from a chance at the sweep. If Cleveland are able to win two of the final four games of this series, which is a big if, is it the greatest upset in the history of the sport?

This is, of course, a purely subjective debate. We can look at statistics, which tend to show underdogs rarely winning in the NBA Finals (see an interesting analysis here by Nate Silver: In fact, while even the favorite skewed NFL can look at things like the Giants beating the undefeated Patriots, the Namath-led Jets beating the Colts or Denver beating Green Bay as 11-point underdogs (among a host of others), it is not that easy to think of many startling upsets in the entire history of the NBA.

Among the greatest upsets we need only look to five years ago when the Dallas Mavericks somehow beat the stacked Miami Heat, even after falling behind 2-1. That victory was ironically redemptive to many who turned against LeBron after he decided to announce his dreaded departure from Cleveland on live television; to join a dynasty-in-the-making. But there are others to consider. The Detroit team that took out the Lakers in 2004, The St. Louis Hawks being the only team to beat Russell’s Celtic in the Finals (out of 12 trips in total). The Heat returning the favor in advance against the multitalented Mavericks in 2006. A few others include an aging Houston team sweeping the Orlando Magic in 1995, an upstart Portland beating the venerated Sixers (with Dr. J.) in 1977 and an aging Celtics beating the Lakers 4-3 in 1969, among some smaller ones back in the early history of the sport.

So assuming that fourth quarter explosion from the Warriors on Tuesday night is not to become the “new normal” of this season, restoring order and leading them to victory, where would this win rank among the all-time upsets in the league? I think it might deserve to be Number 1!

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