The Atlanta Hawks entered a rare group when they upset the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Hawks are just the sixth No. 5 seed to reach a conference finals series since the NBA expanded the playoffs to 10 teams in 1974–75.
As the fifth seed in the East, Atlanta has already won two series it was not supposed to. At least according to the bracket. A No. 5 seed winning in the first round isn’t all that uncommon; a No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup is mathematically presumed the closest series of that round. But it’s the conference semifinals where it gets dicey. Top-seeded teams are there for a reason, after all.
What the Hawks have already done is rare. What they could still accomplish is unprecedented.
Fifth seeds in the conference finals are a rarity
The 2021 NBA Playoffs mark the 47th year there have been at least five teams per conference competing. That translates to 94 conference finals series and 188 conference finalists.
So, just being among the NBA’s last four standing is a big deal for a team coming from the fifth spot in the bracket. As previously noted, the Atlanta Hawks are just the sixth team to pull that off. Only one of those six took an easier path than going directly through the No. 1 seed.
Two No. 5 seeds reached the conference finals in 1994. As coincidence would have it, the Indiana Pacers knocked off the top-seeded Hawks in six games. But in the Western Conference, the Utah Jazz took an easier path. Utah beat the No. 8 seed that year, the Denver Nuggets. That was the first time in NBA history an eighth seed upset a No. 1 in the first round.
The first team to do it was the Kansas City Kings in 1981, dropping the top-seeded Phoenix Suns to reach the first (and still only) No. 5 vs. No. 6 conference finals. They lost to the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets, completing the NBA’s only upside-down bracket (a lower seed eliminated every higher seeded team).
The others to turn the trick include:
- Phoenix Suns, 1990 (lost to No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers)
- Memphis Grizzlies, 2013 (lost to No. 2 San Antonio Spurs)
- Miami Heat, 2020 (defeated No. 3 Boston Celtics)
Yes, a Hawks win over the third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks sends a No. 5 seed into the NBA Finals for the second straight year (and the second time ever).
The Atlanta Hawks would become the first No. 5 seed to win an NBA title
During the 2020 playoff bubble in Florida, the NBA Finals did not end well for the Heat. They lost in five games by the Los Angeles Lakers.
That does, however, open the door for the Atlanta Hawks to become the first fifth seed to win the NBA championship.
Unlike Miami last year, the Hawks don’t have to contend with another No. 1 seed should they win the East. The Utah Jazz were eliminated by the LA Clippers in the conference semifinals, leaving the Suns as the highest remaining seed in the postseason (Phoenix was a No. 2).
It’s not a surprise, but the NBA Playoffs favor the top seeds
Again, using the data from the playoffs since 1975, at least one of the top four seeds (the best two from each conference) has participated in all but one NBA Finals. The lone exception was when the third seeds collided in the 1978 Finals. The Washington Bullets beat the Seattle SuperSonics in that series.
It’s also not a surprise the most common matchup in the NBA Finals since 1975 is the chalk matchup, No. 1 vs. No. 1. That has been the case for 13 NBA Finals, followed by 12 battles between a No. 1 and a No. 2.
Here are the other matchups:
- No. 1 vs. No. 3, eight times
- No. 2 vs. No. 2, three times
- No. 1 vs. No. 6, twice
- No. 2 vs. No. 3, twice
- No. 2 vs. No. 4, twice
- No. 1 vs. No. 4, once
- No. 1 vs. No. 5, once
- No. 1 vs. No. 8, once
It’s worth noting that someone will be reaching the NBA Finals for the first time in a very long time. The most recent appearance by this year’s conference finalists was by the Suns in 1993. Milwaukee hasn’t been to the Finals since 1974. The Atlanta Hawks? They weren’t even in Atlanta the last time they played for the championship. They were still the St. Louis Hawks when they fell to the Celtics in 1961.
And for the sake of not jinxing them, the Clippers are newcomers to the conference finals, much less the big series at the end.
Historical data courtesy of Basketball Reference.