Top 10 NBA Playoff Collapses

February 7, 2022

The NBA playoffs are a competition that is often won by one of the league’s best teams. But there are many examples of the best teams in the NBA falling apart under the bright lights of the competition. These 10 NBA playoff collapses are particularly hard to watch, as these teams struggled to live up to expectations in one way or another, including some downright embarrassing performances in elimination games.

10. New York Knicks vs. Miami Heat – 1997 Eastern Conference Semifinals

The rivalry between the New York Knicks and Miami Heat in the 1990s was less of a basketball rivalry and more of a series of fights that took place during basketball games. In 1997, their matchup in the Eastern Conference semifinals would decide who would face Michael Jordan and the Bulls dynasty in the Eastern Conference Finals. And a fight led to a bizarre meltdown from the Knicks.

After going up 3-1 in the series, the Knicks let the Heat bait them into a fight in game five. This resulted in star players being suspended for games six and seven. Without their star center, Patrick Ewing, in-game six, and John Starks and Larry Johnson for game seven, the Knicks blew a 3-1 lead, and their season ended in disaster. Little did they know that disaster would be synonymous with the Knicks franchise in the years to follow.

9. Houston Rockets vs. Orlando Magic – 1995 NBA Finals

The Orlando Magic were the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference in the 1995 NBA Playoffs. With Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway leading them, the Magic had the best young core in the NBA. But the Houston Rockets had the experience that was able to take the Magic apart in short order in a disappointing Finals that ended in just four short games.

Hakeem Olajuwon was incredible in this series for the Rockets, averaging nearly 33 points per game in the Rockets’ sweep. While O’Neal and Hardaway combined for 53 points per game for the Magic, their inexperience made them ill-equipped to play on such a stage despite their high seed. While Shaq went on to become a champion with multiple teams later in his career, this early setback was an embarrassing one for him.

8. Dallas Mavericks vs. Miami Heat – 2006 NBA Finals

While the Miami Heat had a generational talent on their roster in Dwyane Wade, the Dallas Mavericks were clearly the better team in the first two games of the 2006 NBA Finals. Star forward Dirk Nowitzki was a near-impossible guard for those first two games, while the Heat was unable to get a young Wade going through two games.

But the series turned around quickly, as the Mavericks failed to contain Wade for the final four games of the series. The volume of free throws Wade earned became a topic of controversy, but the Mavericks simply failed to bring the same intensity that they did in the first two games over the final four contests. As a result, the Heat won a six-game series, and Wade earned his first ring as the Mavericks’ collapse prompted questions about Nowitzki’s status as a star.

7. Phoenix Suns vs. San Antonio Spurs – 2007 Western Conference Semifinals

Gregg Popovich and Mike D’Antoni led teams that played very different styles into the 2007 Western Conference semifinals between the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs. Popovich ran a methodical style of play led by Tim Duncan, while the Suns were always willing to run up and down the floor with Steve Nash to pace them. But it was another fight that knocked a team off the rails in this series, with the Suns coming apart at the seams.

With the Suns down two games to one in the series, they managed to even things up in game four. Late in that game, Spurs reserve Manu Ginobili delivered a violent body check to Nash, bloodying the two-time league MVP. This prompted multiple Suns, including leading scorer Amar’e Stoudemire, to leave the Suns bench and be suspended for game five of the series. The Spurs went on to win games five and six, and the best team in Suns franchise history was eliminated ignominiously.

6. Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Clippers – 2015 Western Conference Semifinals

After losing the first game of the Western Conference semifinals, the Los Angeles Clippers stormed back to win the next three games of the series. Up three games to one, the Clippers looked like a shoo-in to get to the conference finals, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin making the Clippers a contender against anyone in the West. But the Clippers failed to finish the series, losing the final three games to get knocked out by Houston.

Dwight Howard, surprisingly enough, was a key to this series for the Rockets. He grabbed 17 rebounds per game in the final three games of the series. This kept DeAndre Jordan off of the glass and kept the ball in the hands of the always dangerous James Harden. Little did everyone know that this would not be the biggest collapse from a Doc Rivers coached team in the playoffs at the time.

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5. Denver Nuggets vs. Seattle SuperSonics – 1994 West First Round

A number one seed had never lost in the first round of the NBA playoffs heading into the 1994 postseason. And the Seattle SuperSonics did not seem like a realistic candidate to become the first team to do so. They won 63 of their 82 regular-season games and looked poised to contend for the championship that season. That is until the Denver Nuggets came around and made league history.

The Nuggets, despite losing the first two games of the series, won the final three games to send the Sonics packing. Denver had a ton of size on their 1994 squad, with Dikembe Mutombo leading a frontcourt that dominated the glass in the final three games of the series. The iconic shot of Mutombo celebrating on the floor of the Sonics’ building after the game five win is memorable, but the Sonics deserve to be remembered for blowing what should have been an insurmountable lead to an inferior opponent.

4. Golden State Warriors vs. Oklahoma City Thunder – 2016 Western Conference Finals

This might be the most high-profile example of a postseason collapse that forever changed the landscape of the NBA. The Oklahoma City Thunder built a three games to one lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The winner would take on LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. With Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant on their side, the Thunder looked like they were going to get back to the Finals for the first time since 2012.

But that is not what happened, as the Thunder lost the final three games of the Western Conference Finals. Golden State’s perimeter shooting was too much for the Thunder in games five through seven, as the Thunder were ousted from a nearly impossible position to lose from. The collapse sent the Warriors to the Finals, and prompted Kevin Durant to leave the Thunder to play with Golden State in the following season, forming an all-time great team in Oakland.

3. Golden State Warriors vs. Dallas Mavericks – 2007 West First Round

While the Denver Nuggets became the first eight seed to win a first round series against a top seed by beating the Seattle SuperSonics, no team had done it in a best-of-seven first round series. That is, until the Golden State Warriors shocked the basketball world by defying all NBA betting odds to beat the Dallas Mavericks in 2007. Despite facing the league’s MVP in Dirk Nowitzki, the Warriors looked like they should have been the one-seed, not Dallas.

This Warriors team will not go down in history as an all-time great team. But the combination of Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and Jason Richardson was one of the more fun rosters in recent league history. But for that Warriors team to never look threatened by the top seed in the West was one of the great shocks in NBA playoff history.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors – 2016 NBA Finals

After getting to the NBA Finals thanks to a blown three to one lead by the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Golden State Warriors finished the season with a collapse of their own in the NBA Finals. Up three games to one against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Warriors started their collapse with a suspension, as forward Draymond Green struck LeBron James to knock himself out of the sixth game of the series.

From there, the Cavaliers took control of the series, winning games five through seven. The meltdown was completed in game seven, as the Warriors’ high-powered offense failed to score on nearly all of their possessions in the final three minutes of the game. The Cavaliers got Cleveland its first title in a half-century, while the Warriors used the loss to sign Kevin Durant in the offseason. In all, this meltdown was a win-win for everyone involved.

1. Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Clippers – 2020 Western Conference Semifinals

The Los Angeles Clippers were the favorites to win the 2020 NBA Finals, and had the luxury of not having to deal with opposing fans during the 2020 playoffs in the NBA bubble. But despite all of their advantages, the Clippers couldn’t even get to the Western Conference Finals, as they fell to the Denver Nuggets in an embarrassing seven game series.

Up three games to one in the series, the Clippers simply could not close the Nuggets out. They had no answers on defense for Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, as the Nuggets were able to push the Clippers to a game seven. In game seven, the Clippers got less than 30 points combined from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, as Murray outscored the two stars combined, and sent the Clippers home from the bubble in shame.

Jay Sanin
Jay Sanin is a sports writer and broadcaster from Albany, NY. He has covered sports betting and the gambling industry since 2013.