When two teams play 215 times in a 43 year period there are bound to be more than a few good moments. When you realize that the 215 games the Phoenix Suns have played against the Los Angeles Lakers is more than they’ve had against any other opponent in team history, it comes as no surprise some of the team’s most memorable moments have taken place against their division rival.
From their first matchup on November 3, 1968 to their 2010 Western Conference Finals faceoff, the Suns and Lakers have seen many interesting and obscure things happen. There was Magic Johnson’s shocking retirement from the league due to HIV prior to a Suns-Lakers early season game in November of 1991. Fans dyed their hair platinum blond in honor of Jason Kidd during the second round of the 2000 playoffs when the Suns took on the Lakers. Even Jason Richardson forgetting to box out and allowing Ron Artest to hit his circus shot with no time remaining in Game 5 of last year’s Western Conference finals was quite an interesting moment in the series’ history.
While each of those moments hold their own unique place in the history of the rivalry, there are five moments that stand out above the rest (at least from the Arizona perspective). So here’s the top five most memorable things about the Suns vs. Lakers.
No. 5: 1970 Suns vs. Lakers first round
It’s not very often that a series where the Suns lost would be considered one of the best moments of all time, but this was a unique circumstance. The franchise, who had just begun play in 1968, made the playoffs in only their second season in existence. Their first ever playoff opponent just happened to be the Los Angeles Lakers.
Despite only finishing with a 39-43 record, the Suns, coached by eventual team owner Jerry Colangelo, sneaked into the playoffs as the three seed (it wasn’t as impressive back in 1970 because only four Western Conference teams make the playoffs).
The Lakers were the polar opposite. They had finished the year 46-36, had the number two seed in the West and were coming off back-to-back trips to the NBA finals.
Game 1 of the series went about how you’d expect. The Lakers beat the Suns by double digits, 128-112, behind a 32-point performance by future hall-of-famer Elgin Baylor and all-time great Wilt Chamberlain’s 19 rebounds.
Game 2 is when things got interesting. Suns forward Connie Hawkins had his coming out party as he scored 35 points, pulled down 20 rebounds and dished out 7 assists, for good measure. The performance, one of the all-time great in Suns playoff history, fueled the team to a 114-101 road victory at the Great Western Forum tying the series at a game apiece. Particularly impressive when you realize that Jerry West poured in 33 points of his own for the Lakers.
Guard Gail Goodrich would help the Suns hold homecourt in Games 3 and 4 scoring 29 and 34 and leading the team to 112-98 and 112-102 victories respectively.
With the Suns leading the series three games to one the Lakers would return home and return to their winning ways. Behind West and Chamberlain Los Angeles would win three games in a row and win the series 4-3 on their way to losing to the New York Knicks in a seven game NBA Finals.
The back and forth nature of the series and the drama it provided were just foreshadowing what was to come over the years between the two teams.
No. 4: Dan Majerle hits last second three to win, jumps on scorers table
In the only regular season moment in our countdown, Dan Majerle created one of the most iconic images of the Suns’ run to the 1993 NBA Finals.
The Lakers were in town at the then America West Arena for a fairly meaningless early April game for the Suns. With Phoenix leading 98-83 entering the fourth quarter, it looked like they’d stroll to an easy victory. That was before the LA made a valiant comeback.
With just seconds remaining the Lakers held a 114-112 lead over the home team. There was just one problem, they left time on the clock for one last shot.
The Suns, already known for big game winning shots in the 1992-93 season, had something special up their sleeves. With 1.6 seconds remaining on the clock center Oliver Miller, with Lakers’ big man Vlade Divac’s hands in his face, found Dan Majele halfway between the mid-court circle and the top of the three-point line for an improbable 30-foot three-pointer. The shot swished through the net as time expired giving the Suns a 115-114 win.
While the shot was memorable, the image that will forever be ingrained in a Suns fans’ brains is what Majerle did after the shot.
As his teammates celebrated and “the crowd went bananas”, as Al McCoy described it, Thunder Dan ran to the scorer’s table, jumped on top of it and faced the crowd with his hands held up in victory.
No. 3 1990 NBA Western Conference semi-finals
It would take the Suns twenty years from their first playoff series loss to the Lakers at the end of the 1969-1970 season to actually defeat Los Angeles in the playoffs. That may not seem like a lot considering teams rarely face each other in the playoffs on numerous occasions, that is until you realize the two teams faced off in the postseason five times in those twenty years.
After only making the playoffs three times in the ‘70’s the Suns began the ‘80s with seven playoff appearances in 10 seasons. Of those seven trips to the postseason, the Suns would face and have their season come to an end at the hands of the Lakers an astounding five times (1980, 1982, 1984, 1985 and 1989). That all came to an end once the calendar changed and a new decade began.
In 1990 the Suns and Lakers would matchup once again in the second round. This time things would end differently for Phoenix.
The Suns would dominate the series from start to finish winning it in easy fashion four games to one ending the Lakers dominance over the franchise. They were led by the 29-year-old Tom Chambers who averaged a triple-double and a 22-year-old Kevin Johnson who began to emerge in the series as one of the leagues dominant point guards.
No. 2 Suns comeback from 3-1 down in 2006 NBA First Round
Head coach Mike D’Antoni and his 54-28 Suns were riding high entering the the 2006 Playoffs. Although they had lost Amar’e Stoudemire early in training camp, the team came together and won their second straight Pacific Division title behind the stellar play of Steve Nash and the unexpected emergence of Boris Diaw.
Coming off an unexpected trip to the Western Conference finals the year before, Phoenix was ready for another deep run in the playoffs. There was just one problem, they were facing the pesky seven seed Lakers led by Kobe Bryant.
Phil Jackson’s squad, who finished the season 45-37, were hungry after missing the playoffs the previous year and they showed it in the series’ first four games.
The Suns would win the opening game of the series at home but, despite being underdogs, the Lakers would win the next three games behind Kobe who averaged 23 points, 6 rebounds and 6.7 assists.
Trailing three games to one in the series and heading home for a pivotal Game 5 the Suns would respond in a big way.
A team effort, with six players in double figures, propelled them to a 114-97 victory. The win wasn’t the biggest headline of the game though. The most memorable part of the 17-point Suns victory was when, late in the fourth quarter, Phoenix guard Raja Bell did his best WWE wrestler impersonation and clothes-lined Kobe throwing him to the ground. The decision earned Bell a two game suspension and an eternal place in the hearts of Suns fans around the world.
Game 6 would prove to be the biggest in the series. After the Bell-Bryant altercation, and with the and the Suns’ backs against the wall, the tension between the two teams was at an all-time high.
The game was a back-and-forth affair. With the Lakers clinging onto 105-102 lead with six seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Shawn Marion would find Tim Thomas at the top of the key who, after a pump fake that sent a defender flying, would hit the game tying three.
The shot was the momentum the Suns needed. They not only cruised to a 126-118 overtime victory but would blowout the Lakers in the series clinching Game 7 121-90.
No. 1 1993 Western Conference First Round
The Suns entered the 1993 NBA playoffs after finishing with a franchise best and league leading 62-20 record. After dominating the Pacific division during the regular season their first round opponent, the 39-43 Los Angeles Lakers, didn’t seem as if they’d be much of a problem. As many of the moments on our list have taught fans, when it comes to the Suns and Lakers, you can expect the unexpected.
The Lakers won the first two games on the Suns homecourt and took a commanding 2-0 lead in the best of five series. The unexpected deficit led to one of the greatest soundbites in Arizona sports history as head coach Paul Westphal told the media and fans in no uncertain terms that they would win the next three games and win the series. It was a promise that wouldn’t be broken.
The Suns would take the next two games in Los Angeles in relatively easy fashion but the series deciding Game 5 would prove to be difficult.
Unlike in 2006, when the Lakers laid down in the series deciding game, the 1993 squad fought the Suns until the bitter end. Los Angeles played well enough to force the game into overtime where the Suns would pull away winning the game 112-104 and fulfilling Westphal’s promise to win the series.