After 10 seasons of missing the playoffs, the Phoenix Suns finally returned in 2021. They had a dominant regular season, and they didn’t just return to the postseason just to be a nice story, they came with the intent to win it all. Despite earning the 2-seed in the Western Conference, they drew the defending champion, Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. On paper, they were viewed as the most dangerous 7-seed in NBA history.
The Suns were viewed by most as the underdog in the series, but after a rollercoaster of ups and downs, twists and turns, and many injuries, the Suns came out victorious after 6 games. Once the buzzer sounded and the Suns had officially won the series, I was filled with a deep feeling of euphoria.
As I reflected on what an incredible series it was, it made me think of what other Suns playoff series wins brought me the most joy. Despite the last decade, the Suns still have a storied history with many incredible playoff victories. In honor of the 6 games that it took the Suns to beat the Lakers this year, I ranked the 6 most enjoyable playoff series wins in Suns history.
#6- 1993 First Round vs. the Los Angeles Lakers
The 1992-93 Suns may very well be the greatest team in Phoenix Suns franchise history. In their first season after trading for Charles Barkley, they won a team record 62 games, the most in the NBA, and Barkley won league MVP. They had tons of momentum going into the postseason and were set on competing for the championship, but started the playoffs in horrendous fashion. They lost the first two games of the first round to the Lakers, who were just 39-43 in the regular season.
The Suns having an 0-2 deficit was significant because back then, the first-round series were best-of-5. That meant that the Lakers were one win away from completing perhaps the greatest upset in league history. The Suns, however, were resilient, proud, and confident, despite the deficit. They were led by Coach Paul Westphal, who had led the Suns to their first Finals appearance in 1976. After the game 2 loss, Coach Westphal guaranteed a series win:
“We’re down 0-2, and I know the next question is, ‘are you guys dead?’ ‘No.’. We’re gonna win the series. We’re gonna win one Tuesday, then the next game’s Thursday, we’ll win there, then we’ll come back and we’ll win the series on Sunday, and everyone will say what a good series it was.”
That is exactly what happened. The Suns won the next three games to close out the series, and instead of a monumental collapse, it’s just an interesting anecdote in NBA history and a legendary quote from Coach Westy.
#5- 1990 Second Round vs. the Los Angeles Lakers
The late 80’s/early90’s Suns get overlooked sometimes. Before Charles Barkley came to town, Phoenix had many great teams led by Kevin Johnson, Jeff Hornacek, Tom Chambers, and company. This series was significant because of the opponent and the history between the teams.
The Showtime Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, had completely dominated the Western Conference in the 1980’s. They made the Finals 8 out of 10 years in the decade, including each of the previous three seasons. That streak came to an end in 1990. The Suns had won 54 games in the regular season and were the 4-seed, and were facing the 63-win, 1-seeded Lakers in the second round.
Despite being the clear underdog, the young Suns team took care of the Lakers in 5 games. Before this season, the Suns had faced the Lakers 6 times in the playoffs and lost every single time. The Lakers were the big brother that we could never overcome. All that changed in 1990, and this improbable win led to many future victories over LA, several of which will be chronicled below. For a more in depth look at the series, read this great Bright Side piece by Ray Hrovat
#4-2006 First Round vs. the Los Angeles Lakers
This one may be the most dramatic and memorable of any playoff series win in Suns history. You should all know the story. Despite Amar’e Stoudemire being injured that year, Steve Nash and Shawn Marion led the Suns to the 2-seed but had to play Kobe Bryant, who was averaging over 35 PPG that year, in the first round. The Suns won a close first game, but then Kobe led the Lakers to three consecutive wins over the Suns, including an overtime buzzer-beater in game 4.
Coming back from down 3-1 is never easy, but the Suns knew they were the better team, and had tough, gritty players like Raja Bell. Bell had gained a reputation for being able to defend Kobe Bryant as well as anyone could, but on a play in game 5, he clotheslined Kobe out of frustration and was ejected from that game and suspended for game 6. Without their best Kobe stopper, the Suns would have to fight tooth and nail to win in Los Angeles. They kept the game close the whole time, and an unlikely hero, Tim Thomas, sent the game to overtime with a last-second 3-pointer, where the Suns won.
During game seven, Phoenix completely blew the doors off of LA. They were up by 17 after one quarter and 19 at halftime. In the second half, Kobe was so disgusted by his teammates’ performance that he essentially quit, refusing to shoot the rest of the game. The Suns continued to pour it on and capped off a 31-point win with the ultimate victory cigar- a Pat Burke three.
#3- 2021 First Round vs. the Los Angeles Lakers
We just lived through this series, so I won’t go into too much detail recapping. I think it’s likely that this series feels different because it came after the longest playoff drought in team history, and that context matters when ranking the most enjoyable playoff series wins. Even more important than the series win is the vindication that comes along with it. The Phoenix Suns have been a proud, successful franchise for most of their history, but were dragged through the mud for a decade of incompetence.
Landing one young star in Devin Booker wasn’t enough to bring the franchise back to competing, so even he was slandered throughout his first five seasons for the sins of team management. Devin Booker proved once and for all in this series that he is a superstar. He closed out the defending champs with an incredibly efficient 47-point game, putting to rest any notion of him being an empty-calorie scorer or looter in a riot. He is here to stay as the future of the NBA and of this franchise, and this playoff series sealed that.
This wasn’t just a normal first-round series win. This was a win versus one of the Suns’ greatest rivals and one of the greatest players of all time. It was a win where the Suns were doubted by nearly every media outlet and sportsbook. It was a win where Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton dominated in their first-ever taste of the NBA playoffs. And of course, it was a series win for the first time in 11 years.
#2- 2010 Second Round vs. the San Antonio Spurs
Up until now, every series on this list has been against the Lakers. It makes sense that Suns fans would get enjoyment out of beating the Lakers as they are one of the Suns’ most hated rivals. I would argue the only team who could possibly match LA in terms of hatred from Suns fans is the Spurs. The Tim Duncan/Greg Popovich Spurs were a dynasty, there is no denying it, but they also benefited from a preposterous amount of luck when they played the Suns in the 2000s. I’m not going to chronicle every unfair occurrence that helped the Spurs antagonize the Suns in that decade but anyone reading this should know the list is extensive. They eliminated the Suns from the playoffs in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2008, and would seemingly never die.
In 2010, the Suns were finally able to slay the dragon. This Suns team was different from the past iterations that always lost to San Antonio. Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire were still around, but most of the roster had turned over and Mike D’Antoni had been replaced by his protege Alvin Gentry as the head coach. Gentry continued to run the same dynamic offense as his mentor, but he improved many of D’Antoni’s weaknesses like defense, playing a deeper bench, and being willing to develop young players.
The Dragon Arrives
One of those young players was Goran Dragic. In his second year in the NBA, he had carved out a nice role as the backup point guard to Steve Nash. After the Suns won games 1 and 2 against the Spurs at home, game 3 shifted to San Antonio. Phoenix was leading most of the game, but they put the Spurs away with an unbelievable performance by Goran Dragic. He scored 23 points in the fourth quarter, eliminating any chance of a Spurs comeback and giving the Suns a 3-0 lead.
The adjective that always seems to be used to describe a 3-0 lead is “commanding”, but I don’t think any Suns fans felt confident even after game 3. When it came to Suns-Spurs, anything that could go wrong for the Suns always did. That’s why no one was surprised when in game 4 Tim Duncan caught Steve Nash with an elbow to the eye that left him with blood streaming down his face. Here we go again.
At the time of the play, the Suns had the lead, but when Nash left the game to be stitched up, the Spurs went on a run. Nash returned in the 4th quarter with his right eye swollen, stitched, and bandaged giving him zero visibility. But, like the true warriors he is, he dominated the final period with just one eye, tallying 10 points and 5 assists, to complete the sweep and finally exorcise the demons of that evil franchise.
#1- 1976 Western Conference Finals vs. the Golden State Warriors
This is the greatest series win in franchise history. I was not even alive for it, and I imagine most of you were not either, but I have watched and read enough about it to give you the rundown. The Warriors were the defending champions. Led by Rick Barry, they had won 59 games in the regular season and were looking to repeat as title winners. The Suns, on the other hand, seemed like a mediocre team most of the regular season.
They had traded for Paul Westphal, who was a rising star, and first-year player Alvan Adams was the rookie of the year, but the Suns started out the season just 19-27. At the All-star break, they traded for Gar Heard, and as the team chemistry grew, the team went on a run in the second half of the season to finish 42-40.
After winning a 6-game series in round 1, the Suns were heavy underdogs against the defending champions in the Conference Finals. The Warriors dismantled the Suns in game 1 by 25 points, but then Phoenix surprised everyone by stealing game 2. Game 3 was a close win by the Warriors, and then game 4 was an instant classic. The Warriors had the lead and the ball with nine seconds left in the game, but when the Suns fouled Derrek Dickey, he missed one of his two free throws.
This gave the opportunity for former Warriors Keith Erikson to tie the game with 2 seconds left by hitting a 20-foot jumper. The game went to double overtime where the Suns won. Everyone knows that when a series is tied 2-2, the winner of game 5 almost always wins the series. The Warriors won that pivotal game handily by 16 points, and all the momentum was in their favor.
Games 6 & 7
The Suns wouldn’t just lay down and die, however. Game 6 was a battle the entire way. The teams played pretty even in the first half, but Phoenix built a small lead going into the 4th. Golden State would then chip away at the lead throughout the quarter until finally taking a one-point lead again in the final minute. Then, Alvan Adams hit a jumper with 12 seconds remaining to take back a one-point lead, and Gar heard blocked a potential game-winning shot by the Warriors as the Suns won another thriller.
Game 7 was in Oakland, and the defending champs built a 10-point lead in the second quarter, but from that point on it was all Suns, who ended up winning the series-deciding game 94-86. The Sunderella Suns had completed one of the greatest upsets in league history and were headed to the Finals. At the time, the Phoenix Suns franchise had only existed for 8 years and was the only professional sports team in Arizona. The fans were so ecstatic that 5,000 die-hards met the team at the airport when they returned home.
It is great to reflect on the many fantastic series wins the Suns have had in their storied history. It is even greater that we get to continue watching this year’s team continue the franchise story. Here’s to hoping the greatest one of all is still ahead.
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