Tim Hardaway has been on both ends of upsets in the NBA playoffs. He has been heavily favored, as is No. 1 seed Miami, and he has been heavily disdained, as is No. 8 seed Milwaukee in the first-round series starting Sunday.
Hardaway’s 1999 Heat team was supposed to beat the New York Knicks, and his 1991 Golden State Warriors team was supposed to lose to the San Antonio Spurs. Neither outcome was anticipated.
“You could pencil Miami in, but you never know,” Hardaway said. “Otherwise, why bother playing the game?”
Hardaway would advise the Heat to beware of Cinderellas in shorts. The Heat powered through the regular season with a franchise-record 66-16 mark and cruised to the end on an eight-game winning streak. The Bucks ducked in at 38-44, finishing 3-7.
“The No. 8 team is playing loosey-goosey because they have nothing to lose,” he said. “They know their opponent is better, so they are ready to have fun.”
The 1999 series ended in the fifth of five games at Miami Arena with Allan Houston’s unforgettable leaning, one-handed 16-foot shot that bounced off the rim and backboard before falling through the net with .8 seconds on the clock. The Knicks won 78-77 and went on to beat Atlanta and Indiana before losing to San Antonio in the NBA Finals.
No No. 8 seed has advanced as far as the conference finals since.
“It could happen again, but if Milwaukee beat Miami it would be the biggest upset in history,” said former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. “Our talent level was far superior to what Milwaukee has today. We had great belief that we would win. Milwaukee knows they’re not winning this series — which doesn’t mean they won’t play hard. But it could be a mercy killing.”
The 1999 season was an abnormal one in that it was a lockout year with 50 games crammed into 90 days. The Knicks were led by the aging, injured Patrick Ewing and had to incorporate Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby into the lineup. The late bloomers finished with a 6-2 flourish to nab the eighth seed.
“We were probably the third- or fourth-best team, and over a full season that would have proven to be true,” Van Gundy said. “We beat Miami in Miami and had a chance to close them out in New York, but in the end it came down to some good bounces.
“We all remember Allan’s shot, but I also remember Ewing hobbling up and down and getting a 24-second violation on [Alonzo] Mourning and Ewing making two free throws to cut it to one point when he could barely walk.”
The epic series added to Heat-Knicks history, which was preceded by the P.J. Brown-Charlie Ward fight in 1997 and the Mourning-Larry Johnson brawl of 1998.
“I can still hear the bodies smacking, and I can still see Houston’s shot going up, bouncing around and going in,” Hardaway said. “It was tough and rugged basketball that made the game the way it is now. I loved playing those guys.”
Hardaway said the five-game series left Miami no room for error.
“Big difference between best-of-5 and best-of-7,” said Hardaway, the former Heat guard who is now community and corporate liaison for the team. “In a short series, you’re suffocating if you lose one at home.”
Hardaway teamed with Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin on the Run TMC Warriors to upend David Robinson’s Spurs in the first round in 1991, when Golden State was seeded seventh and San Antonio was seeded second.
“We got ahead in the series and put them under a lot of pressure,” Hardaway said. “Every possession they were pressing not to make a mistake.”
The 1999 Knicks were the second team to pull off the 8-versus-1 upset since the NBA adjusted its playoff format in 1984. In 1994, the Denver Nuggets beat the Seattle SuperSonics, who were coming off a 63-win season. Seattle, led by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, won the first two games at home, but Denver, led by Dikembe Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis and Brian Williams, won the next three, including the 98-94 overtime win in Game 5 in Seattle during which reserve Robert Pack scored 23 points.
In 2007, Golden State beat Dallas to become the first No. 8 to beat a No. 1 in the current seven-game format. It happened again in 2011, when Memphis beat San Antonio, and in 2012, when Philadelphia beat Chicago.
In 2013, is it really necessary for Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to warn his players not to be complacent?
“Probably not, because if you have the right habits, the habits take over,” Van Gundy said.
Milwaukee also lacks a Ewing or Mutombo-like game-changer. Nevertheless, center Chris Andersen is saying the right things.
“It’s a long way to June,” he said. “We’ve got to focus on one game at a time.”