we’re going to break down the greatest playoff runs of all time by ranking the 50 best. And remember, we’re talking about the run here, not necessarily the outcome. Although championship teams will inevitably stack the top of the list, we have several non-champions mixed in as well; conversely, a few champs, such as the 2008 Celtics, didn’t make the list.
In a few cases, you’ll even see a team on the list and not a team that beat it. Tough noogies. Again, we’re emphasizing the journey rather than the destination on this list. If you want the latter, go Google a list of NBA champions.
But before we get started, let’s explain the methodology. I looked at every conference finalist since 1967, the first year that every team played at least three playoff rounds and thus the first that the concept of a “playoff run” really existed. Four teams per year times 45 years gives us 180 entries to cull down to 50. Again, no pre-1967 squads made the list.
To start, I rated teams on three factors: How many games their opponents won, their opponents’ regular-season scoring margin, the margin of the playoff games. That produced a “margin” for the team in question compared to an average team. I then added some modest bonuses for games won and games lost.
I used a function to collapse blowouts, trying to reward consistent outplaying of opponents over a single humongous win, and changed all overtime margins to one point. I added a bonus for winning a championship and subtracted an equal amount for losing in the conference finals; without those two factors, we end up rewarding teams that lose early that might well have lost much worse later.
What we end up with is an approximation of how many points better they were than an average team during their playoff run. The bonuses for winning (three points to the average team’s score) skew it a bit, but by backing that average out of each team’s score at the end, we end up with our rating for each team’s playoff run.
And after all that, I made a couple of subjective adjustments, too, moving teams up or down a few rungs for factors the spreadsheet couldn’t see, such as competitive balance in the league or injury situations.
Before getting into his rankings, Hollinger listed a few of the worst runs to the conference finals.
And the worst in recent times was the 2003 Detroit Pistons, who trailed the Orlando Magic 3-1 in the first round before rallying to survive, beat the Philadelphia 76ers in six games courtesy of two overtime wins and one by a single point, and then were swept by the New Jersey Nets in the conference finals. The Pistons went 8-9 without facing a single 50-win team, for a rating of minus-3.25.
At the time, I was just so excited by how Tayshaun Prince rallied the Pistons to three straight wins over the Magic. After falling behind 3-1 in the first round, the rest of that postseason was pretty great for a team that had such little success since 1991. But, taking Detroit’s entire 2003 run as a whole, Ford is probably right.
Of course, a few Pistons teams made the best list.
The high: Won their final seven playoff games to claim the franchise’s first-ever NBA championship.
The low: Lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals at home, and trailed 2-1 before rallying to win the final three games.
The story: I moved the Pistons down a few pegs because the Lakers team they beat in the Finals wasn’t really the Lakers — Magic Johnson hurt his hamstring in Game 1, and Byron Scott didn’t play at all. Considering the Pistons won the final three games by 2, 4 and 8 points without those two playing, I think it’s fair to say Detroit would have faced a much longer series otherwise.
Nonetheless, we shouldn’t discount the fact they were 12-2 in the playoffs before Magic went out. They won Game 1 with Magic on the floor, by a dozen points, and while their competition in the East was hardly overwhelming (victims Boston, Milwaukee and Chicago won 42, 49 and 47 games, respectively), the Pistons dispatched them with clinical efficiency. Michael Jordan’s Bulls were the toughest foil, leading Detroit 2-1 through three games in the conference finals, but the Pistons wouldn’t lose again.
The Pistons were another team that built on a big second-half push; they were 27-3 in their final 30 regular-season games and, adding in playoffs, closed on a 42-5 run.
The high: Vinny Johnson’s basket with less than a second remaining to clinch the championship in Game 5 against Portland.
The low: Lost Game 2 of the Finals at home to the Blazers in overtime, their only home defeat of the postseason.
The story: Detroit’s win over the Blazers in the Finals was almost an afterthought after their seven-game series against Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals. Chicago won 55 games that year and was steadily gaining steam. While the series was close, the individual games mostly were not; Detroit’s final two wins were by 19 and 18 points to keep the Bulls at bay for another year.
Up until that point, the Pistons had an easy time of things. They beat Indiana by double digits three straight times, crushed New York by 42 in the opener of the second round, and won nine of their first 10 playoff games before the Bulls got their attention.
Ironically, the Pistons hadn’t won a game in Portland in 17 years when the Finals began, but won three straight there to clinch the series. Game 4 was nearly as exciting as Game 5, as a potential game-tying 3-pointer by the Blazers’ Danny Young was waved off because it came just after the buzzer.
The high: Stunned a heavily favored Lakers team in five games in the Finals. Detroit had the third-highest score for a Finals series.
The low: Barely made it past New Jersey in the second round, trailing the series 3-2 after dropping three straight games mid-series, including a triple-overtime marathon at home in Game 5.
The story: The Pistons gained steam as the playoffs went on. They dropped Game 2 at home to a middling Milwaukee team in the first round before rallying with three straight double-digit wins, and they had the fourth lowest second-round score on this list for the New Jersey series — one which they won with the help of a series of Ben Wallace face-up jump shots in Game 7. (Yes, really.)
Detroit dropped Game 1 of the conference finals before Tayshaun Prince’s renowned block of a Reggie Miller breakaway helped the Pistons win Game 2 and gain control of the series. They also took advantage of others’ misfortune, which caused me to drop them a couple of spots. Jason Kidd went scoreless for New Jersey in Game 7 and needed microfracture surgery immediately after; Jamaal Tinsley and Jermaine O’Neal limped through the conference finals for Indiana and were dramatically less effective, and Karl Malone’s knee prevented him from accomplishing much for L.A. in the Finals.
With Detroit’s swarming defense, it may not have mattered. The Pistons blitzed the Lakers by a combined 41 points over the final three games; only an overtime defeat in Game 2, aided by a last-second Kobe Bryant 3 in regulation, prevented a sweep.
The high: Surprised a 57-win Atlanta team in five games in the Eastern Conference semifinals to make the first conference finals trip of the Bad Boys era.
The low: “The Steal.” Having all but sealed Game 5 in Boston, Detroit’s Isiah Thomas lofted an inbounds pass toward Bill Laimbeer that was stolen by Larry Bird, who fed Dennis Johnson for the game-winning layup.
The story: Entering the playoffs, the young team on the rise was supposed to be Atlanta, not Detroit — the Hawks had won 57 games and had the best scoring margin in the conference. But third-seeded Detroit surprised them in five games, winning two of them by a single point, and should have defeated top-seeded Boston in the conference finals, too.
After dropping the first two, the Pistons crushed the Celtics in Games 3 and 4 to even the series and appeared to have won Game 5 when Dennis Rodman blocked Larry Bird’s last-second shot. Then “The Steal” happened, and Detroit was down 3-2.
Fate intervened again in Game 7. In a tight game in the third quarter, Detroit teammates Vinnie Johnson and Adrian Dantley both dived for a loose ball, colliding head-on. Both were knocked out of the game, and Boston took advantage of their misfortune to hang on for a three-point victory.