We aren't halfway through the year yet, but it's becoming increasingly clear that 2016 is becoming the 'Year of the Upset'. The Cleveland Cavaliers provided the most recent example on Sunday night, storming back from 3-1 down before shocking the 73-win Golden State Warriors on their home court for the club's first NBA title. Before that, though, we had already seen the Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup despite sitting outside the playoff picture midway through the season, Serena Williams lose Grand Slam finals to Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza and, most incredibly, Leicester City achieving the impossible by winning the Premier League.
But even among those results, the Cavs' title victory stands out. LeBron James willed his hometown team to the city's first Big Four championship of any kind in over 50 years by knocking off league MVP Steph Curry and the historically great Warriors against all odds. Indeed, the degree to which Golden State was favored heading into the NBA Finals is rare for a championship game or series, given that it typically features the cream of that sport's crop. That being said, it isn't entirely unheard of.
In the pages of professional sports history, we've had other David and Goliath narratives play out with a title on the line. Though it's widely anticipated that one team will simply apply their superior skill and talent in pushing aside the other, championship battles can sometimes see the tide turn and lightning get captured in a bottle over the course of either one game or a best-of-seven series. These 15 teams rank among the most notable when it comes to "pulling a Cleveland."
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15 1994-95 Houston Rockets
Even though they were the defending NBA champions, the Houston Rockets limped into the 1995 postseason with an aging roster that could only manage a six seed in the West, having gone an underwhelming 17-18 since acquiring Clyde Drexler. But that's when the Rockets turned it on, knocking off the Jazz, Suns and Spurs to earn an NBA Finals date with the much-hyped Orlando Magic and their budding superstar duo of Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway.
Against all expectations, Hakeem Olajuwon kept Shaq in check and the Rockets blitzed the Magic in four straight. Although O'Neal averaged 28 points and 12.5 rebounds in the Finals, Olajuwon did him one better, averaging 32.8 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists to be named Finals MVP. By the next season, Michael Jordan had returned from his first retirement, and attempted baseball career, and was back to leading the Chicago Bulls to the first of three straight titles.
14 2001 New England Patriots
Believe it or not, Tom Brady wasn't always the well-established franchise QB he is today. In 2001, he was an unlikely, over-achieving Cinderella story with people waiting for the clock to hit midnight. After all, he had been a lightly recruited prospect coming out of Michigan and unlikely to do much of substance after having been picked 199th overall (sixth round) in the 2000 NFL Draft. Sure, Brady got credit for leading the New England Patriots to Super Bowl XXXVI, but what chance did he have against the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" offense? This doubt was shared by Las Vegas odds-makers, who set Brady's Pats as 14-point underdogs against Kurt Warner and the Rams. Sure enough, Brady began to build the clutch reputation that we know today, engineering the game-winning drive with 1:30 to go to give the Pats a 20-17 victory and earn Super Bowl MVP honors.
13 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks
Five years ago, at the height of his villainy in the eyes of most NBA fans, LeBron James found himself on the other end of a shocking NBA Finals result. Cleveland Cavaliers fans may want to leave the memory of this time period in the past, but the 2010-11 NBA season seemed like one big party to celebrate the forming of the Miami Heat's 'Big Three', the superstar trifecta of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that had come together the previous summer. James' infamous promise of "not one, not two, not three..." titles was to be put to the test against Dirk Nowitzki and the decidedly less hyped Dallas Mavericks.
Much to the delight of NBA fans, who quickly tired of the Heat's brash swagger, the Mavs shockingly interrupted the King's coronation with a 4-2 series win. Yes, the Heat would get two titles out of the 'Big Three' era, but the loss to the Mavs would remain a nice bit of poetic satisfaction for many.
12 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks
The 2001 Major League Baseball season looked to be following a Hollywood script before the Arizona Diamondbacks decided to rewrite the ending. The New York Yankees were the reigning three-time World Series champions, had toppled the 116-win Seattle Mariners in the ALCS and carried the hopes of a city still reeling in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, which occurred less than a month before the playoffs started.
In fittingly dramatic fashion, the Yankees rallied back from a 2-0 series deficit by winning three games in front of a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd. But before New York could close things out and make it four titles in a row, the Diamondbacks' fearsome 1-2 punch of hurlers Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson had other plans. Even a 3-2 series lead and a 2-1 ninth inning lead in Game seven wasn't enough to prevent Luis Gonzalez's Series-clinching RBI single off of legendary closer Mariano Rivera.
11 2003-04 Detroit Pistons
The tough, hard-nosed and deep Detroit Pistons of the early 2000's were largely defined by what they didn't have. In an era where Superstars dominated the league's landscape, the Pistons got by with an exceptional group that knew how to play together. None of Rip Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace or Rasheed Wallace were going to win any scoring titles, but they were awfully tough to beat as a unit. That proved in stark contrast to the glitzy Los Angeles Lakers, who boasted a marquee foursome of Shaq, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
So when the two teams met in the NBA Finals, it was a fascinating battle pitting two teams that couldn't have been less alike. The problem was, it wasn't much of a battle, as Detroit shocked the Lakers in just five games, holding them under 100 points in each one. O'Neal, Malone, Payton and even head coach Phil Jackson left the team the following summer.
10 1994-95 New Jersey Devils
Sometimes, sports dynasties can start in rather unassuming and surprising fashion. Now known for their aggressive 'neutral zone trap' style of play, the New Jersey Devils were an offensively-challenged afterthought in the strike-shortened 1994-95 season. Even after they went 10-1 through three rounds, few gave them much of a shot against the impossibly talented Detroit Red Wings. While New Jersey was making their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in franchise history, Detroit was making their 19th. In fact, the Red Wings had five players finish with more points than anyone on the Devils could muster during the 50-game regular season.
But then the Cup Finals started and the Red Wings' skilled forwards found themselves suffocated against the trap and superstar goaltender Martin Brodeur, scoring just seven goals over the entire series and bowing out in stunning fashion after a four-game sweep as New Jersey won the first of their three Stanley Cups in 10 years.
9 1984-85 Villanova Wildcats
The popularity of NCAA March Madness hinges heavily on the magical allure of the Cinderella team and the ever-present possibility that an unlikely lower seed might seize the day and overcome a favored opponent - hence the "Madness" part. At the 1985 tournament, the eighth-seeded Villanova Wildcats were that bracket-busting team. Led by Ed Pinckney, 'Nova had already knocked off the one seeded Michigan Wolverines and two seeds North Carolina Tar Heels and Memphis State Tigers when they came up against the top-seeded and defending champion Georgetown Hoyas in the national title game. Pinckney stifled star Georgetown center Patrick Ewing and the Wildcats stunned the Hoyas 66-64 in an April 1st classic that was anything but an April Fool's prank. Villanova, who won their second National Championship this past March on a buzzer-beating three pointer by Kris Jenkins, still reign as the lowest seeds to ever win the title.
8 2003 Florida Marlins
While emptying the vault to acquire big-name free agent talent like Alex Fernandez, Moises Alou and Bobby Bonilla helped the Florida Marlins to the 1997 World Series, fate might have proven their biggest asset during an unlikely trek to the 2003 World Series. A wild card playoff entry, the Marlins benefited from a crucial Jose Cruz Jr. error and the infamous Steve Bartman incident just to beat the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs, respectively, and reach the World Series. Then, they managed to do just enough to overcome the high-powered Bronx Bombers in six games despite being outscored 21-17 over the course of the series. Outside of signing NLCS MVP Ivan Rodriguez to a $10 million contract, the Marlins didn't make much of a splash in order to stack their roster. So when they faced the Evil Empire of the Yankees, they actually conceded a payroll disparity of over $100 million.
7 1941-42 Toronto Maple Leafs
To this day, only four NHL teams have rallied from being down 3-0 and come back to win a playoff series (others are the 1975 Islanders, the 2010 Flyers and the 2014 Kings), with only one of those coming in the Stanley Cup Finals. In the 1942 Finals, the Detroit Red Wings appeared all but set to etch their names into the Cup with a 3-0 lead over the Maple Leafs after finishing as the runner-up one year prior. Their wins had grown more and more pronounced as the series wore on, culminating in an emphatic Game three statement in which the Wings responded to two early Leaf goals with five of their own.
The Leafs, however, weren't quite done and even overcame a two-goal deficit in Game four. How ugly did things get for Detroit? Their head coach, Jack Adams, was suspended indefinitely during the series after punching referee Mel Hardwood in the face after a game.
6 1968 New York Jets
Early Super Bowl contests lacked a compelling 'best against the best' feel because, to most, the AFL was inherently inferior to the NFL and early Super Bowls pitted the champions of each league against one another. In the eyes of many outside observers, that didn't give the AFL champion New York Jets much hope against the NFL's 15-1 Baltimore Colts.
However, the attitude in the Jets' locker room was very different, with players reluctant to watch too much video of the Colts for fear of growing overconfident. That confidence wasn't expressed publicly until Jets star quarterback "Broadway" Joe Namath made a bold-faced promise to win the game at a press conference three days prior. After earning widespread ridicule for guaranteeing a victory that seemed so unlikely, Namath made good on his brash claim, leading the 18-point underdog Jets to a 16-7 win and earning MVP honors after throwing for 206 yards.
5 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers
Few in baseball could match the remarkable firepower of the 1988 Oakland A's, led by the imposing duo of "Bash Brothers" Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, who combined to hit 74 home runs in an era before the public was wise to steroid abuse, ace 20-win pitcher Dave Stewart and 45-save Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley.
After winning an MLB-high 104 regular season games and sweeping the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS, they were set to meet the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had finished with 10 fewer regular season wins and were crippled by a leg injury to star outfielder Kirk Gibson. But the tide soon turned after Gibson hit a dramatic hobble-off home run off of Eckersley to claim Game one, setting the wheels in motion for an incredible five-game World Series victory. One year later, Oakland swept the San Francisco Giants to win the World Series while the Dodgers won just 77 games en route to finishing outside the playoff picture.
4 1968-69 Boston Celtics
When you think of the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics teams of the 1960s, you aren't necessarily thinking of an underdog. But the 1968-69 Celtics were fast approaching the end of the line, with a soon-to-retire, 34-year-old Russell unable to average even 10 points. Despite finishing with their lowest win total in a decade, Boston did just enough to reach the NBA Finals against the rival Lakers, armed with an in-their-prime superstar trifecta of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and a newly acquired Wilt Chamberlain. After scraping their way to Game seven despite 94 points from West over the first two games, the Celts caught wind of Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke's ambitious and arrogant title celebration plans.
That gave them all the fuel they needed to win their 11th title in 13 seasons in what would be Russell's final game. As for the Lakers, West's heroic efforts made him the only Finals MVP from a losing team in NBA history and coach Butch Van Breda Kolff would be fired after keeping Chamberlain on the bench in the game's waning moments.
3 Greece (2004 Euro Cup)
Like so many other team sports, soccer can be Superstar-driven at its highest levels. Greece, however, had no such stars on their 2004 Euro Cup roster, relying instead on standout players on club teams that probably would not have made the rosters of most European powers. In fact, their very qualification only came after a 24-year absence from the tournament.
Nonetheless, they marched through the tournament thanks to tactical discipline, elite levels of fitness and a team-oriented commitment to defensive intensity, advancing past the Group Stage ahead of Spain based on goal differential. From there, they stunned France and the Czech Republic before meeting the host Portuguese side in the final. Greece's 1-0 win, their second victory over Portugal at the tournament after toppling them in the Group Stage, still ranks as one of soccer's greatest upsets. UEFA Player of the Tournament honors went to Greek midfielder Theodoros Zagorakis, who was playing for Greek club AEK Athens FC at the time.
2 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers
So there's probably no need to rehash the specifics of Cleveland's dramatic rally from down 3-1, winning three straight games against a team who had lost consecutive games just once all year. Still, it bears mentioning how much was at stake in Sunday's dramatic Game seven finale. The Cavs' title win instantly became the greatest moment in Cleveland sports history while cementing the legacy of James, who fulfilled his promise in bringing a title to his hometown team.
The Warriors, however, fell short of capping off a record-setting season and will now struggle in comparison to the 1995-96 Bulls, who wound up winning the title at the end of their 72-win season. Sunday's Game seven stunner also makes this summer more interesting - will the rumors of mutual interest between the Warriors and Kevin Durant grow louder now as Golden State looks to get their title back and pursue history again? Will James be ready to embark on a new challenge now, perhaps one in the shining lights of Los Angeles?
1 2007 New York Giants
What does it take to top the Cavs' remarkable title chase? How about the iconic Helmet Catch that erased the hopes of the New England Patriots to make NFL history? The Pats had gone unbeaten in the regular season, winning 11 of their 16 games by 17 or more points in a dominant showing. They appeared poised to blaze their way to a 19-0 record and a fourth Super Bowl title in seven years when they came up against the fifth-seeded New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Down 14-10, Giants QB Eli Manning anchored an astonishing 83-yard drive with 2:39 remaining, one that included an impossible 32-yard desperation catch by David Tyree on third down in which he fell back-first to the ground with the ball pinned against his helmet. They later scored on a TD pass to Plaxico Burress with 39 seconds remaining to seal the shocking 17-14 triumph.
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