The first round of the NBA playoffs is usually about as exciting as watching paint dry while waiting in line at the DMV. The top seeds almost always crush their hapless victims opponents, and the drama (if any) typically occurs when the fourth and fifth seeds battle it out to see who gets to lose in the second round. That's not how David Stern wants you to think about it, but that's how it almost always goes. However...every once in a while a great team flounders, flops, or otherwise fails to live up to expectations. Here are the Top 5 most notable first-round fold-a-ramas from my lifetime.

5. The 1980-81 defending champion Los Angeles Lakers lost Magic Johnson to a leg injury for 45 games, but thanks to the stellar play of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, and Norm Nixon, they still managed to win 54 games, second-best in the Western Conference. But even with a healthy Magic back in the lineup, they still lost their first-round miniseries to the 40-42 Houston Rockets. Strangely enough, the 57-25 Phoenix Suns, best in the West, lost in the second round to the 40-42 Kansas City Kings (remember: this was back when the West sucked), setting up a Western Conference Finals "showdown" between two sub-500 teams. Houston won the right to lose to the Celtics in the NBA Finals, and thus we were robbed of what should have been the first Bird versus Magic championship matchup.

4. In the summer of 1982, the Philidelphia 76ers added league MVP Moses Malone to a loaded roster that already included Dr. J, Andrew Toney, Maurice Cheeks, and Bobby Jones. The 1982-83 Sixers won 65 games during the regular season and then went 12-1 in the playoffs (or, as Malone put it, "Fo', Fi', Fo'"). That same team went into the 1983-84 season determined to repeat as champions, but something was wrong...the chemistry just wasn't there. They won only 52 games and then went belly-up during the first round of the playoffs, losing 3-2 to -- of all teams -- the New Jersey freakin' Nets.

3. Larry Bird missed all but six games of the 1988-89 season. As a result, the Celtics went on to win only 42 games and were promptly swept out of the first round by the eventual champion Detroit Pistons. Expectations were high when Bird returned for the 1989-90 season, but the team struggled early on while trying to implement coach Jimmy Roger's new "spread the wealth" offense. The C's caught fire late, though, winning 11 of their last 13 games and drawing a first round matchup with the New York Knicks, who had lost 15 of their last 22. The Celtics took a 2-0 series lead, which included a record-setting 157-128 annihilation in Game 2. But the Knicks stormed back and won the series in Game 5 in the Boston Garden. Historical Footnote: Late in the fourth quarter, Bird blew a reverse dunk that would have tied the game.

2. The 1994-95 Utah Jazz won 60 games, second-best in the league. But fate once again kicked the Jazz in the balls when they drew a first-round matchup with the defending champion Houston Rockets. The Jazz built 1-0 and 2-1 series leads, but they couldn't hold off the Rockets, who closed out the series in Utah, winning Game 5 by a mere four points. The Rockets would go on to win the title, marking yet another one that "got away" from Karl Malone and John Stockton.

1. During the 1993-94 season, the Seattle Supersonics went 63-19, which was easily the best record in the league. Most experts were predicting a trip to the NBA Finals for the Sonics and their All-Star tandem of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. But they lost in five games to the 42-40 Denver Nuggets, led by Dikembe Mutumbo and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. This series has become the Citizen Kane of first round playoff upsets, and it's used each year as a cautionary tale for top-seeded teams who might be taking their first-round opponents too lightly (ahem, Phoenix). Historical footnote: That which does not destroy a team only makes it stronger, right? Wrong. The 1994-95 Sonics won 57 games but still lost to the Cedric Ceballos-led Lakers in the first round. That's right; they let Cedric Ceballos beat them.

Anyway, this particular flop gave us one of the most iconic (and replayed) moments in NBA playoff history: an ecstatic Mutumbo falling to the floor and holding the basketball over his head like it was the championship trophy. Without question Dikembe's greatest moment.

Dishonorable Mention: Remember that Miami Heat/New York Knicks rivalry from the late 90s? If so, you probably remember that the Knicks usually beat Miami come playoff time. In 1997-98, the Heat won 55 games but still lost to the Knicks (43-39) in the first round, three games to two. During the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the Heat had the best record in the East (33-17), and many people felt that Alonzo Mourning should have been the MVP. But the Knicks still beat them in the first round, winning Game 5 in Miami by a score of 78-77, courtesy of an Allan Houston buzzer-beater.

Second dishonorable Mention: I almost didn't include this one, because in 2002-2003, the 42-40 Orlando Magic weren't expected to beat the 50-32 Detroit Pistons. But the Magic still went up 3-1, which prompted Tracy McGradey to proclaim that he couldn't be stopped and that it felt good to finally reach the second round of the playoffs. Ooops...should've waited until the series was over, Tracy. Sure enough, the Pistons stopped the "unstoppable," and they came back to win the series 4-3. And McGrady still hasn't made it past the first round.

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Blogger Al James said...
It looks like Dallas is going to play Golden State in the first round and Golden State swept the season series. I'm just sayin'...

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Like sonics life isn't bad enough with our team leaving town and it sucking so bad. Thanks for the memories, I will now jump out the window.

The Bog Nug