Since the NBA playoffs moved to a best-of-seven format in all four series (2003), there have been only three champions to lose less than seven games en route to the title: The San Antonio Spurs in 2007, the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 and the Golden State Warriors in 2015.
Dallas Mavericks, 2011: Five losses
One of the more surprising NBA champions in recent years when you take into account the odds and expectations when the postseason began, the Mavs were also surprisingly dominant on their way to the franchise’s first and only NBA title, coming five years after huge letdown in the NBA finals and four years after one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history. The Mavericks had a difficult time against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, winning in six, but cruised against the defending NBA champions, the Los Angeles Lakers, by sweeping them in the conference semifinals. The conference finals against the emerging Oklahoma City Thunder wasn’t as easy as the five game series suggests, never winning in double digits. In the NBA finals, they faced the Miami Heat. Despite not having home court advantage, the Mavericks came back from being 1-2 down in the series to win three straight in the end, upsetting LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the newly formed big three. Nowitzki won the Finals MVP, averaging 26 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. The Mavericks haven’t won a playoff series since.
Golden State Warriors, 2015: Five losses
The NBA’s defending champions and part of the finals lineup in 2016 too, the Warriors lost only five games en route to a first championship since 1975. They swept the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round and beat the Houston Rockets in five games (just like this year, only in a different round) in the conference finals. Things were more difficult against two teams: The Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Warriors found themselves down 1-2 against Memphis in the conference semifinals, but won three games in a row by an average of 16.7 points to make the WCF. In the NBA finals they were once again down 1-2 after three games, but pretty much figured out the Cavaliers, missing two of their big three in the series (Irving played in game 1), in game 4. Andre Iguodala won the Finals MVP.
San Antonio Spurs, 2007: Four losses
One of four championships for the San Antonio Spurs since 2003, the 2007 one ended with a sweep in the NBA finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, with LeBron James making it that far for the first time. Tony Parker won the Finals MVP, averaging 24.5 points while shooting 56.8% from the field. The Spurs did win the final two games by a combined four points, but what people remember is the sweep. Only one team really made it difficult for San Antonio during that playoff run: The Phoenix Suns. One of the biggest What If scenarios in recent years is from game 4 in that series. After the Suns took a lead in the fourth quarter, Robert Horry collided with Nash and sent him flying to the scorer’s table midcourt. Raja Bell tried to come to Nash’s aid, and was stopped by his teammates and referees. Horry was given a flagrant foul and was ejected. Bell also was given a technical foul for trying to get at Horry after the collision. The NBA announced that Horry would be suspended two games for flagrantly fouling Nash and striking Bell’s shoulder. Amar’e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended one game each for leaving their bench during an altercation in violation of league rules. The series was tied at 2-2 after game 4, but the Spurs won games 5 & 6. They beat the Utah Jazz in five games in the conference finals, and the Denver Nuggets in five in the first round.
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The “least dominant” champions were the Boston Celtics in 2008, losing 10 times on their way to the title, twice needing to go through a game 7. Eight of the 13 champions since 2003 lost exactly seven games on the way to glory. The Warriors have lost five playoff games so far in 2016. The Cavaliers have lost only two.