It’s that time of the year once again: the NBA Playoffs. It’s where the players get chippy, the scores get close, and games feel like they actually matter. The most iconic moments in basketball history happen in the Playoffs; star player duels, 7-game classics, and of course, the beloved underdog Cinderella runs.
However, on the inverse, there are embarrassing performances as well, to the tune of 2-of-19 shooting nights, 30-point blowouts, and general collapses.
In this piece, we look at the worst NBA Playoffs collapses of recent memory; huge blown leads, severe upsets, and generally underwhelming performances from highly-touted favorites. The list will span the whole 2010s, with the entries being ranked according to the severity of the team’s collapse; the more the team disappointed, the higher their rank will be.
Injuries and special circumstances (like the Orlando Bubble) will be considered, but will not disqualify a team from the list altogether.
With that out of the way, let’s get into the past decade’s worst collapses.
2014-15 Atlanta Hawks
Starting us off is the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks, who sported no less than 4 All-Stars on their roster.
With their deep roster and team basketball, the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks were the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. It was a relatively weak East that season, too; ATL’s biggest threats were LeBron James’ hobbled Cleveland Cavaliers team and the emerging, inexperienced Toronto Raptors. The Hawks, consisting of All-Stars Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver, looked certain to represent the East in that year’s NBA Finals.
Things went according to plan for Mike Budenholzer’s unit in the 1st and 2nd round of the NBA Playoffs, wherein they beat the Brooklyn Nets and the Washington Wizards in convincing fashion respectively. They then went on to face the Cavs in the Conference Finals, where Cleveland was without the services of Kevin Love; the then-3x All-Star went down with a shoulder injury in the first round.
Not only did the Cavs defeat the Hawks, LeBron James and company absolutely embarrassed the 60-win Atlanta team in a 4-game sweep. Arguably one of the worst collapses of a 1-seed in NBA history.
2017-18 Toronto Raptors
The 2017-18 NBA Finals appearance looked ripe for the taking for DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and the rest of the Toronto Raptors. After getting bounced by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Playoffs for the past two years, they had their biggest chance to defeat The King and his Cavs after clinching the 1-seed.
With 59 wins, this was (and still is) the Raptors’ best regular season finish in their short history. Cleveland, meanwhile, was a mishmash of James, Kevin Love, and a bunch of role players after undergoing two roster shake-ups that season.
Lowry’s leadership, DeRozan’s scoring, and the Raptors’ chemistry seemed to be just a bit too overwhelming for the new-look Cavaliers. However, much like the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks, they got destroyed by the Cavaliers in yet another sweep, with LeBron James putting in another all-time performance to once again bounce Lowry and DeRozan out of the NBA Playoffs.
The loss looks identical to the Hawks’ on paper, but it actually looked much worse for the Raptors then. Their Coach of the Year Dwayne Casey was fired mid-series, after which the DeMar DeRozan trade took place. Their reputation took a huge hit as well, after three straight losses in the postseason against the same opponents.
“We’ll be back to ‘LeBronto’ for the 4th Quarter after this.” – ESPN announcer Mark Jones after 3rd Quarter of the 2018 ECS between the Toronto Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks
Coach Bud, unfortunately, gets another nod on this list.
At the back of another historic regular season, the Milwaukee Bucks were once again tipped to represent the East in the NBA Finals. Their superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo was awarded both the regular season MVP and the Defensive Player of the Year, while secondary scorer Khris Middleton secured a second consecutive All-Star selection. The team looked to bounce back after an unlikely loss in the Conference Finals the previous season.
However, as with the 2018-19 series against the Toronto Raptors, the Bucks ran into similar issues in the offensive end. This time, it was against the 5th-seeded Miami Heat in the 2nd round. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and the rest of the Heat looked to match up quite well against the Greek Freak and company, but nobody expected a 5-game demolition for the 56-win Bucks.
Miami’s wall defense and scintillating 3-point shooting proved to be too much for Milwaukee, who could not keep up offensively. Antetokounmpo struggled to get shots up in the series, only averaging 21.8 in 4 out of 5 games (down from his regular season average of 29.5 PPG). It looked even worse for the Greek superstar when the only win they got in the series was in Game 5 when he did not play due to injury.
2010-11 Miami Heat
LeBron James makes yet another appearance on the list. This time, however, he finds himself on the wrong side of the collapse.
The 2010-11 Miami Heat featured one of the most hated players in one of the most hated rosters of NBA history, with LeBron James forming the new Big 3 with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach. This, of course, came with a lot of Championship expectations, to which James’ “not one, not two,…” speech only added.
The Heatles, as LeBron referred to his Miami team, went into the season and the NBA Playoffs as the favorites to win it all, despite only clinching the 2nd seed. They did look more impressive in the postseason, dispatching the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, and the Chicago Bulls (led by an MVP Derrick Rose) in relatively easy fashion. James and the Heat went into the Finals having played no more than 5 games in all of their postseason matchups prior.
However, as we all know, Dirk Nowitzki and his Mavs team went on to defeat the Miami Heat in just 6 games, capping off one of the greatest underdog NBA Playoffs runs of all time. The Heat, meanwhile, would turn into the laughingstock of the league for about a year until redeeming themselves the next season.
2019-20 Los Angeles Clippers
The most recent NBA Playoffs collapse of the past decade takes top spot.
Most fans and analysts picked the Los Angeles Clippers to win it all in 2020 after the acquisitions of the previous year’s Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, along with former MVP contender Paul George. With this development, along with the Anthon Davis trade on the side of the Los Angeles Lakers, many looked forward to the potential Lakers vs Clippers matchup in the Conference Finals. The Clippers even won their first game against the Lakers in the season opener.
Questions were certainly raised about the Clippers’ lack of playmaking and inside presence, but the perimeter defense with the pure offensive talents of Leonard and PG13 simply looked far too overwhelming. They would go on to clinch the 2nd seed, behind only their city rivals.
Eyebrows were raised as they were nearly stunned by Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks in the first round. However, they did way better at the start of the next round, going up 3-1 against the Denver Nuggets. The stage looked set for them to finish the series in 5 and face the Lakers in the Conference Finals.
Incredibly, the Denver Nuggets survive a 16-point deficit in Game 5 to extend the series, thanks to the heroics of Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray. The Denver duo would go on to mastermind their second 3-1 series comeback in a row, beating the Clippers in 7 to clinch a Conference Finals appearance.
It was yet another blown series for the Doc Rivers and the Clippers organization, who failed once again to get past the second round as the undoubted favorites. Kawhi lost a lot of momentum from his Finals MVP run the previous season, while Paul George endured tremendous backlash, criticism, and several colorful nicknames: Wayoff P, George Paul, and of course, Pandemic P.
Perhaps the 2010-11 Miami Heat comes close. Otherwise, no other Championship favorite collapsed quite as hard after being tipped so heavily as the 2020 LA Clippers.