How does the Miami Heat knocking off the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks compare to all-time NBA playoff upsets?
With Wednesday’s come-from-behind Game 5 overtime win in Milwaukee, the Heat became just the sixth No. 8 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed since the playoffs went to a 16-team format in 1984. Miami did so despite securing the No. 8 seed via a must-win play-in tournament game two days before the series started, becoming the first team ever to advance beyond the first round from the play-in.
Let’s take a closer look at this improbable Heat win and how it compares to past 1-vs.-8 upsets and other unexpected playoff series results.
Throughout the NBA season, I answer your questions about the latest, most interesting topics in basketball. You can tweet me directly at @kpelton, tweet your questions using the hashtag #peltonmailbag or email them to [email protected].
In addition to the main question, this week’s mailbag also answers ones on the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers taking offense back to the 1990s, teams like the Philadelphia 76ers that pull off regular-season and playoff sweeps of the same opponent and players who tend to excel in losses.
“Where does Bucks-Heat rank among playoff upsets?”
In terms of the regular-season performance of the two teams, Miami’s win isn’t historically notable. The 14-win gap between the two teams in the standings is second-smallest of the six all-time 1-8 upsets, ahead of only the 1999 Heat losing as the No. 1 seed to the Knicks, who had finished the equivalent of just 9.8 games back in the compact post-lockout Eastern Conference.
Predictably, the three biggest differentials are all 1-vs.-8 upsets: the 2007 “We Believe” Golden State Warriors over the Dallas Mavericks (a record 25-win gap), the 1994 Denver Nuggets over the Seattle SuperSonics (21) and the 76ers over the Chicago Bulls in 2012 (the equivalent of 18.6 wins in another post-lockout season).
Beyond that, several other matchups have yielded bigger upsets based on regular-season wins, including one NBA Finals (the 2016 Cavaliers’ comeback against the 73-win Warriors) and a conference finals (the 1995 Houston Rockets‘ win over San Antonio Spurs).
All told, this is the 12th-biggest upset in terms of regular-season record, barely ahead of the 2020 Bucks-Heat second-round matchup in the Orlando bubble, equivalent to a 13.5-game gap.
Since Milwaukee outperformed its plus-3.6 point differential by winning 58 games, it’s even less remarkable in that regard. A whopping 36 upsets have featured a bigger gap between the two teams there.
Still, part of this is attributable to the margin between the NBA’s best teams and the pack shrinking in an era where few stars play anything close to 82 games. Milwaukee was still the overall top seed and the pre-playoffs favorite to win the championship. Per SportsOddsHistory.com via ESPN Stats & Information, the Bucks joined the 1994 Sonics and 2007 Mavericks as the third such team to lose in the opening round since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976-77.
According to pre-series lines, the plus-750 odds for Miami to win the series were the fifth-longest overcome in an upset since the merger, trailing three other No. 1 seeds that got upset (the Sonics, Mavericks and 2012 Bulls) as well as the 2020 LA Clippers against the Nuggets in the second round.
Ultimately, it’s clear that the 1994 Sonics-Nuggets and 2007 Mavericks-Warriors series were the two most shocking upsets in NBA playoff history. After that, we can debate how much to factor in Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s absence for nearly the entire first three games of the series — albeit not Miami’s final two wins to close things out — as well as the Heat’s track record of recent playoff success in comparison to other upsets in the second tier.
“What’s up with the scores in the Knicks-Cavs series?”
Although Game 3 in particular stood out as the third-fewest combined points in a game this season, Cleveland and New York didn’t light up the scoreboards at any point in this series. Neither team averaged 100 PPG (the Knicks finished at 99.6), which hadn’t happened in a playoff series since 2019.
Yet aside from Sixers-Nets, which saw the teams combine to average 196.3 PPG in Philadelphia’s four-game sweep, that low scoring hasn’t carried over elsewhere. The 111.1 PPG teams are averaging, albeit well down from the 114.7 we saw in the regular season, would still be the second-highest since 1970 behind only an outlier scoring postseason in 1985 (114.7 PPG, up dramatically from 110.8 in the 1984-85 regular season).
Since about 1960, NBA teams have fairly consistently averaged about three fewer points in the playoffs than the regular season, putting this year’s drop-off well within the typical distribution.
Historically, that drop has been about pace slowing down approximately 3% in the playoffs rather than offensive efficiency declining on a per-possession basis. This season’s story is a little different. The league-wide offensive rating has dropped off from 114.1 points per 100 possessions in the regular season to 112.5 in the playoffs.
Naturally, the Cavaliers and Knicks are a big part of that. Pitting two of the league’s bottom five teams in possessions per 48 minutes during the regular season unsurprisingly produced a slow-paced series with an average of 92.6 possessions per game, which would have been far and away last in the league. (Cleveland was slowest in the regular season at 96.3 per 48 minutes.) On top of that, the Cavaliers barely averaged a point per possession in the series, while the Knicks (107.3 offensive rating) weren’t much better on offense.
The surprising thing about this is New York actually leaned heavily toward offense in the regular season, ranking fourth with 117 points per 100 possessions while finishing 19th in defensive rating at 114.2. So far in the playoffs, however, they’ve resembled the stereotype of a Tom Thibodeau team, struggling to score while completely cutting off Cleveland’s offense.
The result was a Game 3 that, relative to the league average scoring that postseason, was roughly equivalent to the Knicks beating Miami 77-73 in the 1997 playoffs.
“How many times has a team gone 8-0 against another team over both the regular season and the playoffs?”
As noted in the intro, the Sixers pulled this off by completing their sweep over Brooklyn, having already beaten the Nets all four times they squared off in the regular season. I count 12 times in NBA history where a team that swept a best-of-7 matchup in the playoffs was also undefeated in a head-to-head series of at least four regular-season games.
Back in the pre-expansion days, it was possible for teams to win even more games against the same opponent in one season. The 1979-80 Boston Celtics went a combined 10-0 against the Houston Rockets, who were in the Eastern Conference at the time, and the Celtics were 9-0 against the Milwaukee Bucks in 1985-86.
To find the single most dominant performance by one team against another, we stay with Boston but have to go all the way back to 1958-59, when the Celtics went 9-0 against the Minneapolis Lakers in the regular season before sweeping them in the NBA Finals for a combined 13-0 record.
Naturally, this occurrence has become more common in recent years for a couple of reasons. First, it’s easier to sweep the regular-season series against a conference opponent when it’s just four games instead of five or six. Second, the best-of-seven first round has created far more four-game sweeps. Since the change in 2003, 63% of all sweeps have come in the opening round.
Within the past decade alone, then, we had four other 8-0 seasons: Miami over Charlotte in 2013-14, San Antonio over Memphis in 2015-16, Golden State over Portland in 2016-17 and Milwaukee over Detroit in 2018-19.
Still, my all-time favorite 8-0 performance is the one that predates the best-of-7 first round. In 1995-96, the Seattle SuperSonics took all four regular season meetings against the defending champion Houston Rockets before sweeping them in the conference semifinals, part of a 13-game head-to-head winning streak during the midst of Houston’s two titles.
“I’m inventing an award for the player who is the best in his team’s losses compared to their wins but I need the name of the player who does this the best. Who should be the namesake?”
— Evan Zamir
Evan’s question pokes fun at the attention we often pay to players who perform better in wins than losses, which should be the default expectation. Of the 272 players who saw action in at least 20 games with each result this season, 238 had a better game score per 36 minutes in wins.
For this season, the reverse leader was Davis Bertans of the Dallas Mavericks, whose game score per 36 was 11.8 in Dallas losses as compared to 7.9 in wins. Dallas went 1-5 in the six games where Bertans scored double-figures, presumably largely due to more playing time with the team shorthanded due to injury (the Mavericks were 2-10 when Bertans played at least 15 minutes).
Over the course of his career, however, Bertans does have a better game score per 36 in wins than losses — just 73 of the 1,087 players who have played in at least 100 wins and 100 losses since 1987-88 have the reverse split.
Atop that leaderboard is Noah Vonleh, who played for the Boston Celtics earlier this season before being traded and immediately waived in January. In his career, Vonleh has a 9.8 game score per 36 minutes in losses as compared to 8.7 in wins. Nobody else dropped off by more than one point per 36 from losses to wins with the differences weighted equally by season so as not to penalize players who happened to have career years for bad teams.
Vonleh has shot far better in wins, making 48.5% of his shots as compared to 44% in losses according to Basketball-Reference.com. However, Vonleh has rebounded and assisted at a better rate per minute in losses while turning the ball over less frequently.