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NBA Playoffs: 5 most unexpected Conference Finals runs by teams in recent history

LeBron James (#23) of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against Jayson Tatum (#0) of the Boston Celtics during the 2018 ECF.
LeBron James (#23) of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against Jayson Tatum (#0) of the Boston Celtics during the 2018 ECF.
ANALYST

Of the four remaining teams in the 2021 NBA Playoffs, only two have won the championships.

The Milwaukee Bucks were the last ones to do so, back in 1971. Also, arguably three of these four teams were not expected to go deep into the NBA playoffs, although the Bucks and Suns did have great rosters entering the 2020-21 NBA season.

The Atlanta Hawks will play the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, while the Phoenix Suns hold a 1-0 lead over the LA Clippers in the Western Conference Finals.

Among the quartet, the Atlanta Hawks were not expected by many to make it this far. However, the front office did a good job of building a team around Trae Young during the off-season, which helped them make an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

That marked a surprise appearance by a team in the Eastern Conference Finals (ECF) for the second straight year. Following the fifth-seeded Miami Heat's unexpected run to the ECF last year, the Hawks made a similar run to the finals in 2021.

On that note, let's have a look at the five most unexpected runs to the Conference Finals by an NBA team in recent memory. Without further ado, let's get started.


#5 Miami Heat - 2020 NBA Playoffs

LeBron James (#23) of the LA Lakers defends Jimmy Butler (#22) of the Miami Heat during the 2020 NBA Finals.
LeBron James (#23) of the LA Lakers defends Jimmy Butler (#22) of the Miami Heat during the 2020 NBA Finals.

The 2019-20 Miami Heat did not have a bad team. They were coached by one of the best coaches in the league, Erik Spoelstra. However, embarking on a deep run in the NBA Playoffs was not expected from the fifth-seeded team.

In what was expected to be a close series, the Heat swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round. In the second round, then reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks fell to the Heat in five games.

The young Boston Celtics were Miami's rivals in the Eastern Conference Finals in the Orlando bubble. Despite the Celtics outplaying Miami consistently in the first few quarters of almost every game, the Heat's superior experience helped them clinch the series in six games.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the LA Lakers ended the Heat's run in the NBA Finals, though. Nevertheless, it was a valiant effort from Miami, as they pushed the Lakers to six games despite injuries to Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic.

Jimmy Butler shone for the team throughout the postseason in the bubble, averaging 22 points, six rebounds and six assists per game.


#4 Denver Nuggets - 2020 NBA Playoffs

The Denver Nuggets celebrate during the fourth quarter against the LA Clippers in Game Seven of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
The Denver Nuggets celebrate during the fourth quarter against the LA Clippers in Game Seven of the Western Conference Second Round during the 2020 NBA Playoffs.

In the Orlando bubble last year, before LeBron James ended their dream run, the 2019-20 Denver Nuggets made an inspired run in the NBA Playoffs. The Nuggets' run to the 2020 Western Conference Finals was impressive not just for the achievement in itself but in the manner it was done.

Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray were the Nuggets' leaders on the court. Nut the team's 2020 postseason started poorly, as they fell to a 3-1 deficit against the Utah Jazz in the first round.

However, riding on Jokic and Murray's exploits, the Nuggets stormed back to win the series against the Jazz in seven games. The LA Clippers were Denver's rivals in the second round.

As expected, the LA Clippers got off to a 1-0 lead, but the Nuggets struck back in Game 2. Again, the LA Clippers took control of the series with a 3-1 lead, with a LAC vs LA Lakers Western Conference Finals matchup looming.

However, Jokic and Murray again refused to give up, forcing a Game 7 against the LA Clippers. In Game 7, Murray scored 40 points, and Jokic recorded a triple-double with 16 points, 22 rebounds and 13 assists to complete the comeback.

Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris were the role players who also performed well for the Nuggets in the 2020 NBA Playoffs.

The Western Conference Finals had some great moments, too, though the LA Lakers prevailed in five games over the Nuggets. Game 2 was arguably the turning point, as the Nuggets looked poised to even the series at one apiece before Anthony Davis hit a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to give LA a 2-0 lead.

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Edited by Bhargav
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