The most lopsided postseason "rivalries" in the NBA (fair warning: lots of Lakers and Celtics)
The NBA has seen a lot of significant matchups throughout history. This is part of a series I've been doing that encompasses the MLB, NFL, and NHL as well. However, this will probably be the longest as the NBA has seen plenty of lopsided postseason rivalries in history. This is thanks in large part to the lack of parity in several decades, mostly the Lakers and Celtics.
I realized too late that I included division tiebreaker matchups as playoff series. This may have affected a few, but it does give you more to read I guess.
Without further ado, here goes:
Lakers over Nuggets (6-0): one of the main reasons why Denver has had a bad reputation of being first-round puppy chow and being the second-oldest franchise to never make the NBA Finals can be blamed on the Lakers (the Spurs too, more on that later). Denver has only won 7 postseason meetings with LA's premier team. They had chances to make the NBA finals in 1985 and 2009 but were curb-stomped by the Lakers. Ouch.
Celtics over Bulls (5-0):
it is really unfortunate that MJ never had a chance to right the ship for the Bulls in this postseason matchup as they never met the Celtics in the postseason. The most stinging loss in the series for Chicago is probably their 2009 first round where they dropped 2 crucial OT games en route to a tough 7-game loss. Chicago was swept 3 out of 5 times in this matchup and most recently they blew a 2-0 lead to lose in 6 in the first round of 2017, though injuries played a major role in Chicago's collapse.
Celtics over Rockets (4-0): Houston has some pretty bad memories against Boston including getting two quick second-round exits in 1975 and 1980 (yes, they were in the same conference at one point) and getting denied 2 NBA titles in 1981 and 1986. Although outmatched, those NBA Finals still saw the Rockets put up a competitive fight only to lose to overall stronger teams. It was just too bad, but Houston did get its chance to shine in the 90s at least.
Celtics over Warriors (4-0): these playoff matchups took place in the 50s and 60s, and most of them were when the Warriors were still in Philadelphia. Boston was simply too strong of a team, although the Warriors came agonizingly close in the 1962 Eastern Division Finals only to lose on a Sam Jones game-winner with two seconds left in the decisive Game 7 (and the Celtics went on to win the Finals too, ouch). The Warriors did get a crack at Boston again in the 1964 Finals but they were quickly outgunned in 5 games.
Warriors over Rockets (4-0): one of the main reasons the Rockets haven't been able to advance very far under the leadership of James Harden can be blamed on the Warriors, as they've absolutely owned this playoff matchup. The worst came in the 2018 WCF when the Rockets blew a 3-2 series lead and missed 27 straight 3-pointers in the deciding Game 7 to lose what could've been a very winnable 101-92 decision in the end. Worse, the Dubs went on to win another NBA Finals that year.
Celtics over Royals (3-0): these playoff matchups are ancient as they took place in the very early days of the NBA (50s and 60s). Notably, these teams met in the Eastern Division Conference Finals two straight years from 1963-1964. The 1963 series was particularly exciting and saw the deciding game taken by Boston in an unreal 142-131 contest. Naturally, the Celtics won the title both years too.
Jazz over Clippers (3-0): the few years the Clippers made the playoffs in the 90s, the Jazz had their way with them in the first round. 1992 was especially rough as the Clippers almost came from 2-0 down only to drop the deciding Game 5 98-89 (Game 4 was notably played in Anaheim due to the riots). More recently, Lob City took another heartbreaking defeat in a 7-game First Round loss in 2017.
Suns over Warriors (3-0): the Warriors have historically been one of the runts of the Western Conference and usually played like one in the playoffs, and it showed against stronger teams like the Suns. Phoenix pulled off series wins over Golden State in the 1976 WCF, 1989 West semis, and 1994 first round. 1976 was especially painful as the Warriors blew a 3-2 lead, losing by 1 point in Game 6 and then dropping the decisive Game 7 at home, losing 94-86 and preventing a possible repeat title (Golden State won in 1975).
Heat over Nets (3-0): New Jersey and later Brooklyn just never stood a chance against those Miami teams led by D-Wade in 2005 and 2006 and later The Big 3 in 2014. Brooklyn only has two playoff wins against Miami in the 2006 East semis and the 2014 East semis. That 2014 series was notable in essentially driving a dagger in the superteam on crack that Brooklyn tried to pull off. The 2006 series win helped the Heat win the NBA title that year, and 2014 saw them back in the Finals.
Pistons over Pacers (3-0): as even as the regular-season matchup is (Indiana leads 101-97), Detroit has done far more winning in the postseason. Both their 1990 and 2004 NBA titles went through Indiana as did their march to the 2005 NBA Finals. 2004 was probably the hardest for Indiana as that was the ECF. Despite being the top seed, they were no match for Detroit's superb defense and were held to under 80 points for all but 1 game. Four of the six games in that matchup saw the winning team score less than 80 points, no team scored 90 points or more in that series, and the deciding Game 6 was an ugly 69-65 win. Worse for Indiana, they couldn't get Reggie Miller back to the Finals.
Warriors over Trail Blazers (3-0): these matchups all came in the late 2010s when Golden State was absolutely lighting up the league. Portland has been dominated in this matchup for a long time and has only one playoff win against the Warriors in these three matchups. As a Dub fan myself, I usually enjoy watching Damian Lillard play us since he's a hometown kid, but I feel bad that he's been smashed by his favorite team growing up.
Warriors over Pistons (3-0): these are some obscure matchups that took place primarily in the 70s where Golden State won over Detroit in the 1976 semis and the first round of 1977 (yes, Detroit and Golden State were in the same conference at one point). Most notably, however, the Warriors (then in Philly) got their second NBA title in 1956 over the Pistons (then in Fort Wayne), romping them in 5 close games.
Warriors over Hawks (3-0): these matchups all took place in the 60s, so they're very old. The most notable of the three is the 1964 and 1967 Conference Finals matchups. The Hawks came oh so close in 1964 only to drop the deciding Game 7 105-95. 1967 was also rough as home-court advantage finally failed St. Louis in a rough 112-107 loss in the deciding Game 6. At least the Warriors wound up losing both NBA Finals.
Knickerbockers over Cavaliers (3-0): you can blame the Patrick Ewing era for most of this, as his knicks romped over Cleveland in the 1995 and 1996 First Rounds. Yes, there was an era of Cleveland basketball before LeBron, but most of it was either terrible or highlighted by early playoff exits. New York was part of the reason why.
Cavaliers over Hawks (3-0): blame The King for this utter domination of a series. Not only has Atlanta lost every playoff matchup against Cleveland, they've been swept in all three of them. Atlanta finally made the ECF in 2015 as the 1-seed only to get completely blown out of the water by an honestly superior Cavs squad.
Cavaliers over Raptors (3-0): prior to Toronto winning it in 2019, they were puppy chow for LeBron and the Cavs from 2016-18. They actually put up a great fight in the 2016 ECF (their first Conference Finals in franchise history), evening the series at 2 after being down 2-0, but lost by 36 in Game 5 then 26 in the deciding Game 6. They got swept in 2017 and 2018, the latter of which came in spite of them being the 1-seed that year.
Cavaliers over Nets (3-0): the Nets simply weren't that strong of a team in the 90s and the Cavs made quick work of them in 1992 and 1993. The 1993 First Round matchup was pretty competitive but the Nets lost the decisive Game 5 99-89 in what would be Drazen Petrovic's final NBA game before his tragic death. More recently, LeBron rolled through New Jersey in the 2007 semis en route to his first NBA Finals appearance.
Lakers over Royals/Kings (10-1): no matter where the Royals/Kings franchise has been, they've always been easy pickings for the Lakers franchise. Their last playoff matchup, the 2002 WCF, was especially heartbreaking especially as some allegations that certain aspects of that series were rigged in favor of the Lakers came out (also, had Robert Horry's buzzer-beater when the Lakers were down 2 not happened, Sacramento wins the series). The Royals/Kings only postseason victory came in the 1951 Western Division Finals in 4 games en route to the franchise's only NBA title. So oddly enough, it's actually Sacramento that owns the longest active title drought.
Lakers over Warriors (6-1): don't let the 2010s fool you, the Warriors have been one of the NBA's inferior franchises for a very long time and were usually beaten into oblivion by their Southern California rivals. Throughout the 60s-90s, the Warriors could only claim the inaugural postseason meeting between the two: the 1967 Western Division Semifinals which San Francisco swept, a stepping stone to an NBA Finals appearance.
Bulls over Knickerbockers (6-1): this one was no contest, as MJ basically ate the Knicks for breakfast throughout his career. He's undefeated against them, as the Knicks would have to wait until his first retirement into baseball to finally get a postseason win over Chicago (on their sixth try...). That came in the 1994 East semis, and even then, it took seven games and a horrible foul call by Hue Hollins in Game 4 to give the Knicks free throws in the dying seconds to come back from 86-85 down, winning 87-86. MJ returned a few years later and once again destroyed the Knicks in the 1996 semis.
Celtics over Hawks (10-2): the Celtics owned the Hawks in the Finals when the latter was in St. Louis, then destroyed them in the first round and semis when the Hawks relocated to Atlanta. Although...the Hawks' only NBA title to date did come at the expense of Boston in 1958, a series St. Louis won in 6 games (also the last championship team to not feature an African American player, in fact, there was a whole controversy about why Bill Russell didn't play for the Hawks and it has in part to do with this). Atlanta later took the most recent playoff meeting between the two, a 6-game domination in the first round of 2016 that really wasn't that close.
Lakers over Nationals/76ers (5-1): all of these matchups were in the NBA Finals, and to put it lightly, let's just say LA has done a whole lotta more winning in this one. The Showtime Lakers got two of the wins while Kobe got another. Philadelphia's only win came courtesy of Dr. J and Moses Malone in the 1983 NBA Finals where Philadelphia gave Showtime a taste of its own medicine in an absolutely dominating sweep. It was also Philadelphia's last title and both Dr. J and Malone's only Finals win.
Knickerbockers over Bullets (5-1): the Knicks met the Bullets a whopping six straight years from 1969-1974, and led by the likes of Walt Frazier, the Knicks usually had a significant upper hand. Their 1970 and 1973 playoff series wins, in particular, helped propel the Knicks to their only 2 NBA championships to date. The only win by the Bullets in this matchup? The 1971 ECF (the Bullets were still in Baltimore at the time) which saw Baltimore win a close 93-91 matchup in New York in the deciding Game 7 after being down 2-0 and later 3-2 in the series (also, finally winning on the road).
Lakers over Trail Blazers (9-2): blame a lot of this on the Showtime Lakers and Kobe Bryant. Portland could've had deeper playoff runs certain years if they didn't keep on getting matched up with LA. 2000 probably still stings many Rip City fans, as Portland blew a late double-digit lead in the deciding Game 7 to once again drop the ball against the Lakers (oh yeah, they would go on to win the championship that year just to twist the knife some more). Portland's only two wins? The first came in the 1977 WCF in which Bill Walton obliterated Kareem en route to a sweep and the franchise's only NBA title to date. Portland could also claim a 4-game win in the 1992 First Round series en route to another NBA Finals appearance. Said series was famous for the decider having to be played in Vegas due to the infamous LA riots that year.
Lakers over Bulls (4-1): yes, there was a time these teams met regularly in the playoffs, and it was LA that came out on top throughout the 60s and 70s. However, this matchup is probably most famous for giving us the 1991 NBA Finals in which MJ and the Bulls put up a clinic against the Lakers in 5 games, giving the GOAT (yes, I'm saying that) his first of many NBA titles and all but ending the Showtime Lakers era.
Spurs over Grizzlies (4-1): this postseason matchup has not been fun for Memphis, who came in as the much weaker team all the time. Three of Memphis' four losses have been sweeps. Their only victory in this matchup was significant, however, as it was their first series win in franchise history and it's one of the few 8-vs-1 first-round upsets in NBA history. Zach Randolph had a monster series and the Grizzlies won all of their home games to move on.
Pistons over Bucks (4-1): Detroit romped over Milwaukee en route to their 1989 and 2004 NBA Finals victories. Additionally, Detroit won playoff matchups over the Bucks in 1976 and 2006. However, the Bucks were finally able to snatch a playoff series in this one, destroying the Pistons in a sweep in the 2019 First Round highlighted by The Greek Freak's 41 points in the deciding Game 4.
Cavaliers over Wizards (4-1): blame this one on LeBron. He took three straight playoff meetings over Washington from 2006-08 and was the reason why the Wizards were always first-round punching bags. The Cavs also got an additional 7-game series win over the Bullets (as they were then known) in the 1976 semis. Washington's only postseason series win in this matchup is a 1977 First Round matchup that Washington took in 3 games (notably, Game 2 was Nate Thurmond's final NBA game).
Celtics over Lakers (9-3): when you think of historical postseason domination, this is likely the series that comes to mind (at least it did for me). The Lakers were a punching bag for the Celtics in the Finals in the 50s and especially the 60s. They're the reason why Jerry West has just 1 NBA Finals win and Elgin Baylor never won a ring actually playing for the Lakers (LA did give him a ring for "honorary contributions", honestly a very kind gesture by the organization). The heartbreak continued in 1984, but Showtime finally won out in 1985 and 1987. More recently, the teams split the 2008 and 2010 Finals, with the Big 3 in Boston winning the former and Kobe getting his revenge in the latter.
Lakers over Pistons (9-3): whether in Fort Wayne or Detroit, LA has absolutely owned this matchup historically, although you can kind of blame the pre-70s matchups for that. Prior to 1989, all the Pistons organization could claim in this matchup was a 1955 Western Division Finals victory in 4 games en route to an NBA Finals appearance. Detroit then lost the 1988 Finals to the Showtime Lakers to go down 9-1 in this postseason matchup. But the Bad Boys got revenge in 1989, annihilating the Lakers in a sweep behind the likes of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Later, the Pistons upset Kobe and the Lakers in a 2004 Finals, wrecking them with solid defense over 5 games to claim their 3rd and last title to date.
Nationals/76ers over Knickerbockers (9-3): after winning both the 1951 and 1952 EDF over the Nationals (the former in 5, the latter in 4, unfortunately, the Knicks would lose both NBA Finals in 7 games), the 76ers have done far more winning in this series. Having Wilt and later Dr. J will help you out a ton. The most recent playoff matchup, however, saw the Knicks upend the Sixers in a First Round sweep in 1989 punctuated by Gerald Wilkins hitting the game-winner in OT with 6 seconds left in the deciding Game 3 to win the game for New York 116-115.
SuperSonics/Thunder over Rockets (6-2): I was actually a bit surprised to see this one. Seattle was simply too much for Houston to handle even when the Rockets had the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. It took them their sixth try against Seattle to finally pull out a series win in 1997 West semis, and even then, it took 7 games and Seattle nearly came back from 3-1 down. When the Sonics relocated to OKC, Houston was thrashed in their 2013 First Round matchup but countered in 2017 as the Thunder without KD was no match. That series produced a hilarious moment in Andre Roberson getting fouled intentionally and even running away from Houston players to help his team not lose the game.
Spurs over Nuggets (5-2): the Nuggets have historically played awfully against San Antonio and it's shown in the postseason as well. Until last season, Denver could only claim a 3-2 first-round victory in the 1985 postseason (a series in which their offense scored 141 points in the opening game and was never held to under 111). More recently, the Nuggets won a hard-fought 7-game first-round series against the Spurs last postseason, pulling off a close 90-86 win in the decider to win their first postseason series in 10 years. They also notably won their first game in the Alamo City since 2012 in that matchup.
Celtics over Bucks (5-2): you can blame the 80s for Boston's generally superb performance over Milwaukee, as they took three out of the four playoff matchups in that decade. The only blemish was the 1983 semis in which Milwaukee famously swept the Celtics in Boston's first sweep since 1954 (read more about that sweep in the Celtics over Nationals/76ers section). More recently, Milwaukee crushed the living daylights out of Boston in the 2019 semis in 5 games in their deepest playoff run in years which unfortunately ended in the ECF.
Bulls over Cavaliers (5-2): long-time Cavs fans will likely get PTSD moments just hearing the name Michael Jordan, as he had some of his clutchest moments against the Cavs including The Shot and later The Shot II. Chicago also earned two sweeps in a row in 1992 and 1993. LeBron James helped right the ship just a little bit in the 2010 First Round (a dominant 5-game romp) and the 2015 semis (highlighted by a buzzer-beater by James in Game 4 and absolute destruction of the Bulls in the deciding Game 6, a 94-73 win), but there's still a little ways to go for Cleveland in this one.
Lakers over Spurs (8-4): the Showtime Lakers won the first four playoff matchups against San Antonio, but the Spurs started climbing back in the series with a 6-game win in the 1995 semifinals and a sweep in the 1999 semifinals over Kobe. The latter is notable for being a stepping stone to San Antonio's first NBA title. Kobe would have much more success against the Spurs in the 2000s, going 4-1 against them in that time with just the 2003 semis being the only blemish (a series that saw a Robert Horry shot almost win Game 5 and complete a comeback, San Antonio won a championship that year too). Most recently, San Antonio wrecked a disappointing and hobbled Lakers in the 2013 playoffs in a first-round sweep en route to the NBA Finals.
Lakers over Suns (8-4): the Lakers throughout the 70s and 80s were the far more dominant team and won the first 6 postseason matchups against Phoenix. The Suns, however, famously ended a string of 8 consecutive LA trips to the WCF by blasting the Lakers in 5 in the 1990 semifinals. Later, Phoenix survived a scare in the 1993 first round as the 8th-seeded Lakers went up 2-0 before Paul Westphal guaranteed the Suns would come back. They did in dramatic fashion as Dan Majerle tied Game 5 late and the Suns would go on to win in OT (Phoenix marched all the way to the Finals). Kobe Bryant, surprisingly, had just a 2-2 record against Phoenix as Steve Nash and Co were simply too much in the mid-2000s (Phoenix came back from 3-1 down in 2006 and destroyed LA in 5 in 2007), although his win in the 2010 series propelled the Lakers to their last NBA title to date.
Lakers over SuperSonics/Thunder (6-3): the Showtime Lakers and even the Lakers of the 90s had postseason field days against the Sonics, although it was actually Seattle that got the first two victories in this matchup: a 3-game victory in their 1978 First Round matchup that saw Seattle march all the way to the NBA Finals, and an exciting 5-game semifinals win en route to the franchise's only NBA title to date. Kobe Bryant owned a 2-1 postseason record over the franchise, winning in 1998 and 2011, but the franchise finally pulled off a series win against LA in 2012 as KD and Westbrook annihilated the Lakers in 5 games in the semifinals en route to an NBA Finals appearance.
76ers over Bucks (6-3): Milwaukee has taken more than its fair share of series losses to the Sixers, most recently a heartbreaking 7-game loss in the 2001 ECF. However, Milwaukee has still been competitive at times. A young Kareem led the Bucks to a dominant 5-game semis win in 1970 (which included a whopping 156-120 thrashing in Philly in Game 3). Later, the Bucks would win a tough 7-game semis matchup in 1986 with the go-ahead score in the deciding Game 7 actually coming from a Barkley goaltending (Milwaukee won 113-112). The last Milwaukee win came one year later in the 1987 First Round which Jack Sikma hit a fantastic game-winner in Game 3 and the Bucks romp to a 102-89 win in the deciding Game 5 in Dr. J's final game.
Hawks over Pistons (6-3): when the Hawks were in St. Louis, they absolutely dominated the Pistons in postseason play, losing just once in the 1956 East Finals as Fort Wayne became the first team to ever come back from a 2-0 deficit. Atlanta later took the 1986 First Round matchup, but Detroit countered with a dominant 5-game romp in the 1987 semis which saw Isiah Thomas hit the game-winner in Game 4 with 1 second left. The Pistons would later get a 5-game romp over Atlanta in the First Round of 1991, but Atlanta won the last two playoff series and that's where we stand.
Celtics over Nationals/Sixers (13-8): while not nearly as dominant as some of the other matchups on this list, it's still pretty much highlights just how dominant Boston was. The Nationals actually dominated the 50s of this matchup, sweeping the 1954 Eastern Division Semis in 2 games (after claiming a Round Robin victory earlier), taking the 1955 Conference Finals in 4 games en route to an NBA Finals win, and winning the 1956 semis in 3 games. However, it's been mostly Boston from here on out, though Philly famously stole the 1967 EDF in 5 (highlighted by Wilt's unofficial quadruple-double in Game 1 and Wilt's record-setting 41 rebound performance in Game 3) to disrupt Boston's dominant record of the 60s and score an NBA Finals berth. Philly also took a hard-fought 7-game 1977 semis matchup en route to the NBA Finals and dominant 5-game ECF in 1980 en route to another NBA Finals, and a nice 7-game series win in the 1982 ECF that saw the Sixers prevent another 3-1 comeback from Boston (they blew a 3-1 lead in the 1981 ECF) and famously got Celtics fans to cheer for them to beat LA in the deciding Game 7 (they didn't that year but would the following year, so the fans kinda got what they hoped for).
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