Past Lakers and Suns playoff meetings add layers to 2021 series
There are many layers to the Phoenix Suns’ first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers.
It’s not just about Devin Booker’s early career struggles, a brush with the late Kobe Bryant and Booker’s first chance to be legendary, just like the newly admitted Hall of Famer told him.
It’s not just the historic odds favoring seventh-seeded Los Angeles or the fact that Phoenix faces one of the best players ever in LeBron James.
The two teams have a lot of playoff history together.
So let’s go down memory lane of the last five playoff series between the Suns and Lakers.
2010 – Lakers in 6, Western Conference Finals
Los Angeles’ last title before 2020 went through Phoenix, and it took heartbreak on the Suns’ part to get there.
The Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, went ahead 2-0 before Phoenix clawed back to tie the series behind stars Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire.
Phoenix also relied heavily on a bench mob that included Goran Dragic, Jared Dudley, Channing Frye and Leandro Barbosa.
Then Game 5 happened. Tied at 101 thanks to Suns guard Jason Richardon’s three with 3.5 seconds left, Bryant airballed a three out of a timeout but was saved by World Peace, who turned and scored off the offensive board with for a two-point lead at the buzzer.
The Lakers would take Game 6 to win the series over the Suns, then needed seven games to take down the Boston Celtics.
Where are those former Suns now?: Dragic is a key bench player for the reigning Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat, while Dudley is riding the bench — but still pushing his teammates — on the other side of the Suns-Lakers rivalry.
Robin Lopez, the Suns’ starting center in 2009-10, is a key bench player for the plucky Washington Wizards, who fought through the play-in round to get into the postseason.
Nash (Nets head coach), Stoudemire (Nets player development coach), Jarron Collins (Warriors assistant) and Barbosa (Warriors player mentor coach) are on staffs of teams that hope to go far this postseason.
Of the other players who are retired, Phoenix’s 2009-10 starting small forward Grant Hill is working games as an analyst but is also Jerry Colangelo’s successor to lead USA Basketball.
Channing Frye is getting deeper into TV work and just launched his own brand of wines.
2007 – Suns in 5, first round
This was a fairly easy opening round for No. 2 seed Phoenix against No. 7 seed Los Angeles.
The Lakers had Bryant, but also a lesser supporting cast compared to the 2009-10 squad. Lamar Odom was the second-best player, but after that the Lakers relied on center Kwame Brown, Luke Walton and Jordan Farmar as part of the starting lineup.
Phoenix cruised behind Nash, Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. They were bolstered by starters Raja Bell and James Jones on the wings, and had point-forward Boris Diaw, center Kurt Thomas and Barbosa off the bench.
Where are those former Suns now?: Marion is a shareholder for the National Basketball League’s New Zealand Breakers, while Bell is developing his podcasting chops.
Jalen Rose, a reserve who made two brief appearances in the Lakers series, has built a successful career with ESPN as a broadcaster and podcaster.
And you may have heard that Jones is in his third season as general manager of the Suns.
2006 – Suns in 7, first round
As the third seed, the Suns got a little more competition than they hoped for in 2006.
It didn’t help that Stoudemire was sidelined for the series due to injury, but Phoenix made a midseason steal by picking up forward Tim Thomas after he was dumped from the Chicago Bulls with his career at a crossroads. Thomas and Diaw showed up when it counted.
Los Angeles led 3-1 after Game 4 on Bryant’s buzzer-beater that came off a scramble from a jump-ball.
The next game, Bell infamously clotheslined Bryant before a Phoenix win.
Here is that if for some reason you don’t recall.
With Barbosa starting in Bell’s place, Phoenix took Game 6 with a huge performance from Thomas.
With a double-double off the bench, Thomas hit a game-tying three to force overtime, and the Suns pulled away. They routed the Lakers, 121-90 to win the series, then beat the Clippers before falling to the Dallas Mavericks in the conference finals.
Where are those former Suns now?: Among the notable bench players for that Suns team were Eddie House, who has dabbled in broadcasting, and Brian Grant, who recently published a book about his NBA career and battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Also, Nikoloz Tskitishvili last played basketball in 2019! The fifth overall pick by the Denver Nuggets in 2002 joined the Suns late in the season.
2000 – Lakers in 5, conference semifinals
Backcourt 2000 didn’t go as planned, but Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway were indeed available and healthy enough for the Suns at the end of their playoff run.
It just didn’t help Phoenix was facing a fast-rising Bryant and an in-his-prime Shaquille O’Neal, who bulldozed their way to a title that year.
Unsurprisingly, Bryant had his hands all over the series. He had one of his first game-winning buckets in Game 2 for a 97-96 Lakers win.
Phoenix could only manage to take Game 4, 117-98.
Behind their star backcourt that dealt with injuries, the Suns also had point guard Kevin Johnson — coach Cotton Fitzsimmons coaxed him out of retirement after Kidd was injured during the year — NBA Sixth Man of the Year Rodney Rogers, a rookie Shawn Marion and one of the original stretch power forwards in Clifford Robinson (R.I.P.), who posted two 30-point games in the series.
Where are those former Suns now?: Kidd sits on the other side of this 2021 series as an assistant coach for Lakers head man Frank Vogel, while Hardaway has been coach for the Memphis Tigers since 2018
1993 – Suns in 5 (5-game series), first round
The Suns’ last NBA Finals run began with head coach Paul Westphal’s guarantee after his No. 1 seed found itself down 0-2 against the No. 8-seeded Lakers — remember, this was back when first-round series were a max of five games.
“So we’re down 0-2 and I know the next question is, ‘Are you guys dead?'” Westphal said in his postgame press conference. “No. We’re going to win the series.
“We’re going to win one Tuesday and the next game’s Thursday, we’ll win there, then we’ll come back and we’ll win the series on Sunday. Everybody will say what a great series it was.”
Indeed, he was right.
The Suns — led by MVP Charles Barkley, Dan Majerle and Johnson — came out on top for three must-win games in a row, needing overtime in Game 5 to pull out the series.
The Lakers’ roster included big men Vlade Divac and Elden Campbell, plus Arizona State product Byron Scott and an aging James Worthy.
Phoenix ended up beating the San Antonio Spurs and Seattle SuperSonics on their way to an NBA Finals loss to the Chicago Bulls.
Where are those former Suns now?: Barkley, of course, remains busy in the media industry and still holds his post on TNT’s Inside the NBA (he and Majerle also did a shoot to promote this year’s Suns playoff run).
Starting center Mark West has remained close to the Suns and is now vice president of alumni relations, while Tom Chambers, who was the team’s sixth man, co-hosts the team’s local pre- and post-game shows.
Majerle lost his job as Grand Canyon head coach this past year but remains a presence with his restaurant chain in the Valley.
Reserve Danny Ainge remains the most significant current contributor in the NBA as general manager and president of the Boston Celtics.