WE are faced with two whacky scenarios no matter what happens during the rest of the Eastern Conference Finals. On one hand, the Cavs (basically the LeBron James show) need to win four times in five tries or they miss the finals. Either that or a shell of Boston’s best team is going to claim an unlikely berth to the big dance. Maybe both of them are destined to be steamrolled by whoever comes out of the West, but still their presence there will be historic. They aren’t the first unlikely team to break through to the Finals and since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, six squads stand out above the rest.
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6. 2008-09 Orlando Magic
TO make it to the NBA Finals in 2009, Orlando had to knock down some formidable names. Trailing 3-2 their quest seemed in peril early, yet they managed to upset Boston by claiming a Game 7 win. That series W led to an epic battle against LeBron in the ’09 East Finals. With Dwight Howard at the peak of his powers and everyone else stepping up around him, Orlando stormed past ‘The King’ taking down the favoured Cavs to book a date with Kobe and LA.
THAT year marked the first of three straight Defensive Player of the Year awards for Howard, who was emerging as the best big man in the league. He led the league in blocks and rebounds while averaging 20+ PPG for the second straight year. Stellar seasons from B-graders around him like Hedo Turkoglu, Jameer Nelson and Rashard Lewis allowed them to capture the 3rd seed and win over 70% of their games. Howard finished as a top-5 MVP candidate and they seemed destined to take down the Lakers. However, Kobe Bryant (32.4 PPG in the Finals) was a man on a mission that season, leaving Magic fans wondering what could have been.
5. 1994-95 Houston Rockets
TALK about timing your run to perfection. After 10 years in the NBA Hakeem Olajuwon helped the Houston Rockets breakthrough with a maiden championship in franchise history back in ’94. With Michael Jordan no longer casting his shadow of the league the Rockets entered the 1994-95 season as a serious threat to go back-to-back. An amazing individual season from Olajuwon saw him average a career-best 27.8 PPG in the regular season, with his former University of Houston running mate Clyde Drexler joining him early on in the season.
DREXLER’S arrival didn’t translate to instant success with the Rockets going on a 17–18 stretch that saw them finish as just a 6th seed. After surviving two early rounds against the Jazz and the Suns, Houston set up a date with the Spurs and the newly crowned league MVP David Robinson. Hakeem outplayed Robinson handily in the series averaging over 35 PPG during the six games. He wasn’t finished though, becoming one of just six players to score 30 points in every game of an NBA Finals as he and the Rockets manhandled the Orlando Magic. Without Hakeem’s peak season there’s no way Houston takes down Shaq and the Magic. To be honest, without Hakeem, there’s a real possibility they wouldn’t have even reached the conference finals. Everything fell into place at the right time for Houston.
4. 2001-02 New Jersey Nets
IN between A.I’s run (more on him later) and the start of the next season the power in the East shifted. A trade between the Nets and Suns changed the landscape of the NBA with New Jersey landing Jason Kidd. He went on to finish runner-up in the MVP voting behind Tim Duncan and helped the franchise double their win total from a season prior. Having never won 50 games in Nets history the 2001-02 season loomed as a great chance to break the curse. And that’s exactly what they did.
Image from si.com
ON the back of Kidd’s stellar play New Jersey stormed through their first two five-game series’. Once they managed to do so they met the Boston Celtics for a scrappy, hard-fought six games. With the ledger squared at 1-1, the Nets surrendered a 21-point 4th quarter lead to Boston in Game 3, allowing them to complete an NBA record playoff comeback. Kidd righted the ship and closed the series out with a huge triple-double (15 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists) in the clinching Game 6. Of course, they then found themselves destroyed by the Lakers in a sweep. Still, Kidd’s surge and the epic jump in wins makes the Nets ’02-’03 season historic.
3. 1998-99 New York Knicks
BACK in the mid-90’s, the infamous ‘Ewing theory’ was coined. Bill Simmons created the phrase after he and a friend tried to determine why the Knicks played better when Patrick Ewing wasn’t on the court. The theory has been since tabbed to other sports teams’ runs over the past few decades, but the 50-game lockout-shortened season still remains the best example.
BACK in 1999, with a measly 27-23 record New York stumbled to an 8th seed in the topsy-turvy season. Once they reached the postseason their story really began where they went on to become the second 8th seed ever to take down the 1st seed, beating Miami in 5. They then swept the Hawks and toppled the Pacers 4-2, becoming the first, and still to this day, only 8th seed to make the NBA Finals. But, that wasn’t the shocking part. It was the fact that they ground out a win against Indiana, despite Patrick Ewing injuring his Achilles in Game 2 of the series, ruling him out for the rest of the playoffs.
LJ saved them in Game 3, with a heroic 4-point play and their guards Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell had hot games to help them advance over the Pacers. It’s no surprise to learn the Ewing-less Knicks were promptly dismantled by San Antonio in five games. That doesn’t take away from just how unprecedented their presence in the Finals truly was.
2. 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers
SOMETIMES you just get LeBron’d. It’s a term that Eastern Conference teams are becoming pretty accustomed to. Just ask Dwane Casey. Back in 2007, we got a glimpse of what LeBron’s peak could look like as his Cavaliers stormed to the franchises first NBA Finals trip. Of course, it wasn’t until years later that the demons of the past were vanquished and LeBron made good on his promise of bringing a ring to Cleveland. Still, at just 23-year’s old you could tell he was just getting started. Finishing as a 2nd seeded 50-win team they thwarted the Wizards and Nets with relative ease, setting a date with the Pistons. Detroit held them to 76 PPG as a team through the series’ first two games, but then James arrived.
LEBRON is famously known for his Game 5 performance where he scored Cleveland’s last 25 points, pulling out an important double OT win. That 48-point performance then led into a Game 6 win, booking a date with the Spurs in the Finals. San Antonio briskly swept the woeful Cavs, who had no depth behind James. To this day that Game 5 against Detroit is one of LeBron’s greatest career achievements, which is what it took to drag that miserable Cavaliers squad into the Finals. Sound familiar?
1. 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers
THERE is more than one player with notable 40-point performances in the postseason and at the top of the food chain might be Allen Iverson. His Game 1 scoring binge against the juggernaut Lakers team in the 2001 NBA Finals is one of the most iconic performances of the last 30 years. To get there the league MVP had to drag his shallow supporting cast through the playoffs. Their regular season was impressive with 56 wins translating to a No. 1 seed, but there were questions over their legitimacy as contenders.
Especially given the controversy surrounding them that season.
AFTER Theo Ratliff (who was having a career season) injured himself they opted to trade him for the ageing Dikembe Mutombo before the trade deadline. Finishing the year 15-12 there weren’t expectations for a deep run, but they found themselves against the Bucks in a Game 7 for the ages with a Finals spot on the line. A ridiculous 44 points from A.I. later and Philly was set to match up against LA. The fact that they were able to steal a game is awesome, especially considering the ease at which Los Angeles steamrolled the competition that season. Hold your heads high Sixers fans another appearance might be around the corner soon as well.
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