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Analysis: The best ‘Cinderella runs’ in NBA postseason history

With the fifth-seeded Miami Heat having reached the 2020 NBA Finals, we’ve looked back at the best ‘Cinderella runs’ in the competition’s history to see how their postseason might rank against the other great underdog stories.

How rare are ‘Cinderella runs’ in the NBA postseason?

A team’s seeding is usually a powerful predictor of their fortunes in the playoffs. Since the current 16-team format was established in 1984, 23 of the 36 champions were top seeds and 12 of the remaining 13 were ranked either second or third.

Meanwhile only 10 of the 144 teams seeded seventh or eighth have even made it past the opening round and just five of the 72 finalists were seeded fourth or lower.

Cinderella champions

Since the playoffs were first contested in 1947 there have only been two champions who were seeded lower than third. The most impressive of these were the 1995 Houston Rockets, who were seeded sixth but defeated the top three teams in the Western Conference in succession before sweeping the top-seeded Eastern team – Orlando Magic – to claim the title.

The other unlikely champions were the 1969 Boston Celtics, who were seeded a more favourable fourth and had to negotiate one fewer round. Their win is remembered as one of the NBA’s greatest-ever upsets though as the ageing Celtics came back from 2-0 down to win the series 4-3 against a star-studded Los Angeles Lakers team.

Cinderella finalists

There are two other unfancied teams who went all the way to the NBA Finals but failed to lift the trophy.

In 1999 the New York Knicks became the most successful eighth seed in history as they defeated three of the top four teams in the Eastern Conference before losing to the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs. To date, no other eighth seed has even made the Conference Finals, with four falling at the semi-finals stage.

Prior to that, in 1981 an earlier vintage of the Houston Rockets – seeded sixth – also reached the NBA Finals. Unfortunately they came up against a formidable Boston Celtics team featuring Larry Bird and Cedric Maxwell, who defeated them to claim the first of three championships in a six-year spell.

Whatever happens in 2020, the Miami Heat will join this exclusive club of just five teams to have reached the NBA Finals despite being seeded lower than fourth at the start of the playoffs.

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