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The Most Unlikely Champions in NBA History

The NBA Playoffs begin this weekend, and the top prize is up for grabs this season with a number of teams who look capable of going all the way.

A good case could be made for eight or nine different teams this season so a surprise winner would have to come from outside that group. 

However, that hasn’t always been the case and there have been years where a few teams were expected to dominate, only for another champion to emerge. 

We’ve had a run through some of the most unlikely champions in NBA history.

2011 Dallas Mavericks

In 2006, the Dallas Mavericks reached the Finals but fell short in their bid for the Championship and for the following few seasons they appeared to be legitimate contenders – but they were unable to claim the top prize. 

By 2011, it looked as if their chance had been and gone but they went on to pull off an incredible upset in the postseason.

The Mavs had finished third in the Western Conference that season, behind San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers, who had won the title the previous year. 

Dallas took out the Lakers in the conference semi-finals and the overcame an Oklahoma City Thunder side containing Kevin Durant and James Harden – but the big upset came in the Finals Series itself.

The Miami Heat had acquired LeBron James and Chris Bosh in the 2010 offseason to form a big three alongside Dwayne Wade. 

The Heat had blown their opponents away in the playoffs, winning each of their first three series 4-1 to reach the Finals.

Nobody expected the Mavs to deny the Heat the title and they lost two of the first three games, but then won three in a row to wrap up a 4-2 series win thanks to some awesome performances from Dirk Nowitzki, who picked up the Finals MVP award.

1995 Houston Rockets

In 1995, the Houston Rockets were the defending champions but back-to-back titles looked a stretch. They had a mixed season and were widely considered the third favorites – if that – in the West behind San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz.

Even if they did make it through the West, Michael Jordan had made a sensational comeback following retirement for the Chicago Bulls and Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic were heavily fancied in the East.

The Rockets stunned the Jazz in the first round and went on to reach the Finals, beating San Antonio in the conference finals.

Orlando had indeed come through the East but the Magic proved no match for Houston as the Rockets completed a sensational 4-0 series sweep in the Finals, with Hakeem Olajuwon winning a second straight Finals MVP award. 

2019 Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors looked a team in transition going into the 2018-19 season after long-serving star DeMar DeRozan was traded to San Antonio Spurs, with Kawhi Leonard heading in the opposite direction.

That season would prove to be Leonard’s only year in Toronto but it is also one of his most memorable. 

The forward came up with some herculean displays in the playoffs, including a buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals series with Philadelphia 76ers.

However, a Finals matchup against the all-conquering Golden State Warriors looked a step too far. The Dubs were bidding to complete an historic three-peat but instead it was the Raptors who prevailed, landing the franchise’s first ever championship. 

The Raptors’ were perhaps aided by the fact Durant suffered a season-ending injury in Game 5, but they did lead 3-1 after four games and may well have won the title even if he had been fit for the entirety of the series.

2004 Detroit Pistons

The Detroit Pistons were a good team in 2004, they had claimed third seed and had a respectable 54-28 record but few believed they could deny a superstar Lakers side the championship in the Finals.

Detroit had quality in Chauncey Billups, Tayshaun Prince, Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton but the Lakers had an awesome roster that year - with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, all future Hall of Famers, in their team. 

The Pistons won Game 1 in LA but then lost the second meeting, before securing three wins in a row to claim a 4-1 series win and the championship.

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