With the 2009 NBA Playoffs behind us and the 2009 NBA Finals about to begin, we were again reminded this year of how much the postseason has to offer basketball fans. A number of unbelievable games, we also had some great storylines including Dwyane Wade’s return to the playoffs following a one-year hiatus, we had one rival upset another rival in the Spurs-Mavericks series and we had what some are arguing could be the greatest series of all time in the matchup between the Celtics and Bulls. And just think, that was from the Opening Round alone!
Some have argued that the greatest playoff series of all time can’t take place in the first round because the chips aren’t as high, but I disagree with that philosophy. While I think a first-round series needs to stand out a little bit more to be in the discussion, I don’t think it’s fair to rule one out completely. Plenty of teams which have advanced all the way to the NBA Finals have been pushed to the brink on the Opening Round. Why would the impact of that series mean any less than the Semifinals matchup taking place just one round later?
It got me thinking, however, of what the greatest playoff series I’ve ever seen was. A basketball fan since 1992, it was the 1994-95 season that got me hooked – particularly because of all the great postseason matchups that I had the opportunity to watch. After conducting tons of complicated research (also known as going to YouTube and searching for stuff), I’ve narrowed down the field and hope that by the end of this process, I can pick out the single greatest NBA postseason series I have ever seen. Feel free to send me suggestions along the way as I’m sure a few of the 200-plus series I’ve been sorting through may have slipped through the cracks.
For the first part of this series, I’m going to start things off with none other than the Phoenix Suns. Obviously biased as both a diehard fan and an employee, I’m hoping by opening with my team it will prevent any favoritism down the stretch. How that makes any sense logically I’m not sure, but let’s play things out and see how it goes.
At no point in their history did the Suns appear to be shining brighter than they were in 1993. Charles Barkley was that season’s NBA MVP and the team had dominated the ’92-’93 campaign finishing with a franchise-best record of 62-20. Phoenix’s beloved ballclub was matched up with its longtime rival Los Angeles Lakers in the first round – a team that had earned a postseason berth despite only winning 39 games. Many not only predicted the Suns to win the best-of-five series, but to do so in easy fashion.
It was apparent early that would not be the case, as a franchise that had eliminated Phoenix six times in postseason history grabbed a Game One victory on the road. The Suns were without injured guard Kevin Johnson in the contest, but that knew with or without him, they’d have to find a way to win Game Two. If not, the top-seeded Suns risked heading to Los Angeles down 0-2 in the series and just one game away from elimination.
That’s exactly what happened as despite a 14-point, 16-assist effort from the returning Johnson, the Suns fell, 86-81. Perhaps more surprising than the fact that Phoenix was now on the brink of elimination heading to La La Land for two games, was the calm and cool demeanor in which Suns Head Coach Paul Westphal guaranteed a series victory following the loss.
“We’re going to win the series,” Westphal said during his press conference. “We’re going to win one Tuesday, then the next game’s Thursday, we’ll win there and then we’ll come back and we’ll win the series on Sunday. And everybody will say what a great series it was.”
With his team now needing to win three-straight games including two on the road, the coach didn’t appear to have any doubts his Phoenix team would rise from the ashes and take the series. Game Three was the first chance for the players to prove Westphal right and took advantage with a 107-102 victory at the Great Western Forum. Phoenix was a little more convincing in their next contest, riding Barkley’s 28 points and 11 rebounds to a 101-86 win and were suddenly just one victory away from making Westphal’s prophecy a reality. The best news for the team was that they would now be returning home to the fans they had kept on the edge of their seats since departing for Los Angeles.
On the edge of their seats is exactly where those fans would remain in Game Five, a contest that required overtime to determine a winner. In the extra session, Barkley’s 31 points would prove to be too much to overcome for the Lakers as the Suns not only captured the series, but would eventually go on to earn their second Finals berth in franchise history (take that naysayers of first-round significance).
A newbie to the NBA, I was not completely immersed in this series as I’d like to say I was. That was certainly not the case when these two ballclubs met again following the 2005-06 season. An intern working my first season with the Suns, I quickly learned during that series that when you’re an NBA employee working the postseason, you’ve got to be ready for anything.
The number two seed in the Western Conference, the Suns got things started off as many expected with a 107-102 victory at home. A team that needed three-straight victories to oust Los Angeles from the playoffs in 1993, Phoenix had the tables turned on them in 2006 dropping three straight to Kobe Bryant and his seventh-seeded Lakers. No loss was more crushing than the one which came during Game Four on the road. A contest which got away from the Suns – literally – when Nash was stripped of the ball in the game’s closing seconds of overtime setting up a Bryant game winner.
Statistically, the Suns were done. An 0-7 ballclub in games decided by three points or less, if Phoenix wanted to win the series they would need to become just the eighth team to rally from a 3-1 deficit in NBA history. A Suns team that had already played the season without All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire, would find the odds stacked against them even more following their 114-97 win in Game Five. While generally a team would find momentum swinging back their way after such a victory, the Suns were hit with the news that guard Raja Bell would be suspended for Game Six due to a hard foul delivered on Bryant late in Game Five. Now Phoenix would not only have to travel on the road facing elimination, but would be forced to play without another of their most reliable scorers and a man many had proclaimed a “Kobe stopper.”
Every great series needs to have that one brilliant game that stands out head and shoulders above the rest (that being one of the key reasons I can’t seriously consider that 1993 series against the Lakers a true contender). While fans in Los Angeles will view Game Four of this series as that classic contest, fans in Phoenix will always remember Game Six of this series as the one that really helped turn that postseason around.
Shorthanded, the Suns battled on the road but still trailed by three with just seconds remaining. Following a broken play and a missed trifecta from Steve Nash, the ball was tipped into the hands of Tim Thomas who had just signed with the Suns in March. Thomas delivered a head fake and then delivered from downtown, forcing overtime. The Suns ran away in the extra session and then ran away in Game Seven at home, 126-118 – a complete smackdown which was never even close.
I mentioned that every great series needs to have at least that one classic game. A classic game, however, can’t make a classic series as we learned in the very next round of that postseason. Despite a Game Five against the Clippers which I consider my favorite Suns playoff game of all time, the Western Conference Semifinals matchup against Los Angeles’ other team, the Clippers, just didn’t have much to offer despite going seven games.
This rule of one classic game not defining an entire series has been seen many times throughout Phoenix Suns history, including the 1997 game that saw Rex Chapman put a scare into the heavily-favored SuperSonics with an amazing, off-balanced shot and a 2003 Opening Round contest against the Spurs which saw late-game heroics from both Stephon Marbury and then-rookie big man Amar’e Stoudemire.
But while I could go on and on about great individual playoff games the Suns have been a part of, the focus here is on great playoff series, and I don’t think I’ve seen them play in any series better than that 2006 Opening Round matchup against the Lakers. Not one, but two unbelievable games, and storylines galore between the two longtime rivals. The Suns had to overcome everything from suspensions to the constant reminder that a Phil Jackson-coached team had never been eliminated in the first round of a playoff series. Oh, that and the whole “we’re down 3-1″ thing.
But while I hold that series very close to my heart, I’m not entirely sure I could say it was the greatest I’ve ever seen. Check back tomorrow where we’ll discuss some memorable Western Conference matchups not involving the Suns. Feel free to send suggestions throughout this process as time has limited my research and there may have been a series or two I’ve forgotten. I still haven’t yet made up my mind which way I’m leaning and would appreciate any assistance.