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Grab your Kleenex: A Suns-Spurs Playoff Retrospective

We've been here before.  Over.  And over.  And over again.  Since I'm the resident history guy around Bright Side, I requested this story assignment via a text to Seth during the final 25 seconds of Suns/Blazers Game 6.  I suppose this makes me a bit of a masochist - and I'll admit a great deal of frustration boiled up while researching this.  I expect reading it will produce the same type of emotion for you - unless you're a Spurs fan in which case...ENJOY! 

As some of our younger readers may not be aware, the Spurs came to the NBA via the ABA/NBA merger and played their first NBA season in 1976-77.  Further, when the Spurs joined the NBA they were actually in the Eastern Conference until the 1980-81 season.  Odd little fact, the Suns and Spurs both reached their respective Conference Finals in 1979 before falling in 7 games.  Yes that's right, the Suns and Spurs conceivably could have met for the NBA Championship. 

The Suns and Spurs had not met in the playoffs until 1992 but they've been anything but playoff strangers since.  In fact, 2010 is the TENTH time in the last 19 summers of NBA playoffs that the Suns and Spurs have got together.  Before we get into the dirty details let's take a broad look at how the first 9 editions have panned out:

  • San Antonio has 6 series win while Phoenix has just 3.
  • San Antonio holds a 25-18 edge in the 43 playoff games between the two.
  • The teams have met in the first round 6 times with the Spurs having the 4-2 advantage
  • The teams have met twice in the Western Conference Semifinals, splitting the meetings.
  • The teams have met once in the Western Conference Finals with the Spurs earning the trip to the 2005 NBA Finals.

1992 Western Conference First Round - 4th seeded Suns defeat 5th seeded Spurs (3-0)

  • Phoenix Suns: 53-27, coached by Cotton Fitzsimmons
  • San Antonio Spurs: 47-35, coached by Larry Brown (38 games) and Bob Bass (44 games)
  • Background: The story of this series began and ended with the Admiral. San Antonio seemed on their way to another fine season until March 16th, 1992 when David Robinson tore a ligament in his left hand that sidelined him for the season's final 14 games - a stretch in which San Antonio would go just 5-9. Unable to return for the playoffs, the Suns wiped out the Spurs in a first round sweep. Not helping matters, the Spurs were also without starting forward Willie Anderson who missed the final 24 games of the season and the playoffs with a stress fracture in his left leg.
  • The Series: The Suns took both Game 1 and Game 2 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum before putting the Spurs to bed with a Game 3 win at HemisFair Arena.  The short-handed Spurs just didn't have the fire power to hang with Phoenix. 
  • Suns Leaders: Phoenix started KJ, Hornacek, Andrew Lang, Cedric Ceballos, and Tim Perry with Dan Majerle and Tom Chambers coming off the bench. Chambers missed Game 2 and Thunder Dan missed Game 3 with injuries. KJ averaged an impressive 22.3/15.7 for the series.
  • Spurs Leaders: Terry Cummings led the Spurs in scoring over the 3 games with a 26.0 average while Antoine Carr and Sean Elliot tied for second at 19.7.No offense to Terry Cummings but he wasn't a number 1 option at this point in his career. 
  • Fun Facts: Game 3 was the final one for the career of Spurs (and former Pistons) guard Vinnie "Microwave" Johnson.
  • To the winner: Phoenix would go on to fall to Portland in the Western Conference Semifinals, a loss which spurred a trade for Charles Barkley.

1993 Western Conference Semifinals - 1st seeded Suns defeat 5th seeded Spurs (4-2)

  • Phoenix Suns: 62-20, coached by Paul Westphal
  • San Antonio Spurs: 49-33, coached by Jerry Tarkanian (20 games), Rex Hughes (1 game), and John Lucas (61 games).
  • Background: Phoenix traded Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang, and Tim Perry to Philadelphia in exchange for Charles Barkley in June of 1992. The result was a tougher and better team that posted the best record in the NBA in '92-93. New coach Paul Westphal was the winningest first year coach in NBA history. San Antonio began the season under former UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian but that ended relatively swiftly before the reigns were handed to John Lucas. Lucas provided some stability, adding Avery Johnson to the Spurs starting lineup, and drove San Antonio back into the playoffs.
  • The Series: Through the first 5 games of the series home court was completely held and Phoenix went into San Antonio with a chance to close out the series. With the game tied and only a few seconds left, Charles Barkley went to work on David Robinson, hit a 20-footer from the top of the key, and sent the Suns to the Western Conference Finals.
  • Suns Leaders: The soon to be NBA MVP (Barkley) posted a double-double in all six games and averaged 26.2/13.2 doing it. Kevin Johnson averaged a pretty standard 20.8 points and 9 assists for the series.
  • Spurs Leaders: David Robinson averaged 25.7/11 for the series while Sean Elliott went for 15.3 points per game. Elliott, a 49% shooter on the season, shot just 41.1% from the field in the 4 Spurs losses.
  • Fun Facts: Charles Barkley's shot closed down HemisFair Arena as the Spurs moved to the Alamodome for the '93-94 season.
  • To the winner: Phoenix beat Seattle in the Western Conference Finals and would lose to the Chicago Bulls in 6 in the NBA Finals. Remember that?

1996 Western Conference First Round - 2nd seeded Spurs defeat 7th seeded Suns (3-1)

  • Phoenix Suns: 41-41, coached by Paul Westphal (33 games) and Cotton Fitzsimmons (49 games)
  • San Antonio Spurs: 59-23, coached by Bob Hill
  • Background: After three years of coming close to a championship the Suns decided that the only way to get over the top was with a center. Unfortunately the organization decided the best move was to trade Dan Majerle to Cleveland for Hot Rod Williams. With Hot Rod starting at center (and posting averages of only 7.3/6.0) and youngsters Wesley Person and Michael Finley incorporated into the rotation, the Suns got off to a 14-19 start before dumping coach Paul Westphal. Cotton Fitzsimmons returned to the job for a third time and helped the Suns squeak into the playoffs. San Antonio had mostly the same primary core as the last time they faced the Suns (they had Dennis Rodman the previous two seasons) but had added the dynamic and sexy Will Perdue for Twin Towers 1.0 (obviously there were still some bugs to be worked out). 
  • The Series: Following what has been a recurring theme in Suns history, the Suns third leading scorer - Michael Finley - suffered an ankle injury in the final regular season game and missed the entire series. Already overmatched, the Suns were blown out in Game 1 and Game 4 and the Spurs quickly dispatched them in an unmemorable 4 games.
  • Suns Leaders: Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson each had a solid series but there wasn't much support outside of that. Thin on guard depth already, the Finley injury forced Cotton to play second year guard Wesley Person almost 46 minutes per game in the 4 game series. In another indication of how thin the Suns were, something called Chris Carr averaged 14 minutes per game.
  • Spurs Leaders: Hot Rod Williams was acquired to stop people like David Robinson, right? Well he didn't. Robinson averaged 30/11.8 for the series. And that's all I have to say about that one (said in Forrest Gump voice).
  • Fun Facts: Game 4 was the last in the Suns career of Charles Barkley.
  • To the winner: San Antonio lost to Utah in the Western Conference Semifinals, their last playoff appearance pre-Duncan (they went 20-62 in 96-97).

1998 Western Conference First Round - 5th seeded Spurs defeat 4th seeded Suns (3-1)

  • Phoenix Suns: 56-26, coached by Danny Ainge
  • San Antonio Spurs: 56-26, coached by Gregg Popovich
  • Background: San Antonio deserves credit for perhaps the most well-timed "down year" in the history of the NBA. Although they had won 55, 62, and 59 games leading into the '96-97 season, injuries to David Robinson and Sean Elliott dropped the Spurs to 20 wins and the first pick in the 1997 NBA Draft. Enter Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich's first full season, and a return to 50+ wins. The Suns experienced a bounce back year of their own - coming off of 40 and 41 wins the previous two years. Change began the season before when Phoenix traded for Jason Kidd in a midseason deal. Adding Antonio McDyess and Cliff Robinson to the core for this season, the Suns added 16 wins to their previous season's total.
  • The Series: The Suns were without Danny Manning who had torn his ACL towards the end of the regular season, and were dealing with an injured Rex Chapman who appeared just twice in the series and was largely ineffective. San Antonio took advantage of the injured Suns and used their large frontline and an impressive performance from Avery Johnson to take the series in 4.
  • Suns Leaders: Nobody was exactly outstanding for Phoenix. Antonio McDyess had a few solid games (26 and 21 in Games 3 and 4) averaging 17.8 points per game while Jason Kidd put together a balanced 14.3/7.8/5.8 series.
  • Spurs Leaders: Both Tim Duncan (in his first playoff series) and David Robinson averaged 20.3 points per game and added 9.8 and 16 rebounds per game respectively. What was most surprising is that Avery Johnson averaged 20.5/6.0 in the series despite the Suns strong point guard rotation of Kidd/Nash/KJ.
  • Fun Facts: Kevin Johnson retired after the season, although he would return for 6 games in the lockout shortened 1999-2000 season.
  • To the winner: San Antonio lost to Utah in the Western Conference Semifinals in 5 games.

2000 Western Conference First Round - 5th seeded Suns defeat 4th seeded Spurs (3-1)

  • Phoenix Suns: 53-29, coached by Danny Ainge (20 games) and Scott Skiles (62 games)
  • San Antonio Spurs: 53-29, coached by Gregg Popovich
  • Background: Penny Hardaway, Jason Kidd, Backcourt 2000! The season was actually a rough one for Phoenix as they lost a total of 269 player games due to injury (am I right Blazers fans?) and experienced Danny Ainge resigning 20 games into the season. Yet Scott Skiles took this tough situation and led the team into the playoffs (it's kind of his thing). That dude can coach. San Antonio was the defending NBA champions but were without Sean Elliott for most of the season due to his off-season kidney transplant. Add that to a late season injury to Tim Duncan and San Antonio would have been hard-pressed to repeat.
  • The Series: Duncan missed the series for San Antonio and the Suns were without Jason Kidd for the first 3 games. The two banged up teams combined for some very unaesthetically pleasing basketball (including a 72-70 result in Game 1) and the Suns grabbed home court advantage with a split in San Antonio and finished the series back in Phoenix in 4 games.
  • Suns Leaders: Penny Hardaway led the scoring charge at 19 per game while NBA Sixth Man of the Year Rodney Rogers was in character at 17.8 points per game off the bench.
  • Spurs Leaders: David Robinson predictably led the way for the Spurs averaging 23.5 points and 13.8 rebounds in the series but they did not have a respectable second scoring option. Sean Elliott was still a shell of his former self and Avery Johnson isn't much of a scorer. In the last two games of the series Mario Elie was the Spurs second leading scorer with 12 points in each contest - not a recipe for victory.
  • Fun Facts: This was the first playoff series in the career of Shawn Marion - and including this year's first round loss suffered by Dallas - the only time he's beaten the Spurs.
  • To the winner: Phoenix lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference Semifinals in 5 games.

2003 Western Conference First Round - 1st seeded Spurs defeat 8th seeded Suns (4-2)

  • Phoenix Suns: 44-38, coached by Frank Johnson
  • San Antonio Spurs: 60-22, coached by Gregg Popovich
  • Background: Coming off a 36 win season in which the Suns missed the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, this was an unexpected playoff berth for Phoenix. There were plenty of superlatives for the Suns as both Stephon Marbury and Shawn Marion made the All-Star game and Amar'e Stoudemire won Rookie of the Year. The Spurs were in the midst of successfully transitioning the core of their team to incorporate 20 year-old guard Tony Parker (his second year as the starter) and rookie swingman Manu Ginobili. Manu wasn't quite Manu yet but Parker was getting it going and Stephen Jackson provided an excellent third scoring threat. Tim Duncan won the second of his back to back NBA MVP's.
  • The Series: Considering they were the 8 seed, the Suns actually put up a helluva fight. Phoenix won Game 1 in San Antonio due to a game-typing three by Stoudemire and a game-winner by Stephon Marbury in overtime - both threes were banked home. Jake Voskuhl also hit a game winner over Tim Duncan to win Game 4 for the Suns and even the series.  Yet, the Spurs were too good for Phoenix and won the final 2 games to take the series. 
  • Suns Leaders: Stephon Marbury was the Suns leading scorer for the series at 22 per game but he definitely earned the points - shooting just 37.5% on his 136 shot attempts.
  • Spurs Leaders: The NBA MVP was very MVP-like in the series. Tim Duncan might not have had his normal compliment of points (18.7) but he pulled down 16 rebounds per contest and averaged a staggering 5.2 assists. Duncan had a 15/20/10 triple double in the clinching Game 6. Malik Rose scored in double figures during 5 of the 6 games including a 27 point explosion in the Spurs Game 5 win.
  • Fun Facts: Current Suns GM Steve Kerr was on the Spurs roster for the series but did not appear in any games. For the Suns, current awful broadcaster for MY45, Scott Williams, started at center for Phoenix in the series.
  • To the winner: San Antonio went on to beat the Lakers, Mavericks, and Nets on their way to a second NBA championship.

2005 Western Conference Finals - 2nd seeded Spurs defeat 1st seeded Suns (4-1)

  • Phoenix Suns: 62-20, coached by Mike D'Antoni
  • San Antonio Spurs: 59-23, coached by Gregg Popovich
  • Background: The Phoenix Suns won just 29 games the season before but after adding Steve Nash to an already impressive core of Shawn Marion, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Joe Johnson they tacked on a staggering 33 more wins to their total. Nash won the first of two consecutive MVP's and helped Stoudemire reach his first All-Star game and second team All-NBA status. As for the Spurs, they were in the second year of the post-Robinson, Parker/Ginobili-based lineup and were looking to get back to the championship.
  • The Series: I feel like the majority of Suns-Spurs playoffs series' can be defined by just a few words - this one can be partially defined as "Joe Johnson" (with the other part being "too young"). The young stud who had averaged 17.1 points per game for the season, suffered a displaced fracture of his left orbital bone in Game 2 of the Mavericks series and did not return until Game 3 of Suns/Spurs when Phoenix had already dropped the first two games on their home court. He played a normal compliment of minutes in the last 3 games and averaged 18.3 points per game but the hole was already too deep and the Spurs rolled in 5 games.
  • Suns Leaders: This is the series where Amar'e Stoudemire met the world. In a series with the one of the greatest power forwards of all-time in Duncan, Stoudemire averaged 37 points per game and did his part to keep the Suns alive. Shawn Marion (who I've decided is the curse causing all the Spurs series losses) averaged 19.4 during the regular season but dipped to just 7.8 in the Western Conference Finals.
  • Spurs Leaders: Tim Duncan. Manu Ginobili. Tony Parker. They all averaged over 20 and carried the team. Robert Horry averaged double figures off the bench.
  • Fun Facts: Jim Jackson started both games in this series that Joe Johnson missed.That is not a very fun fact. 
  • To the winner: San Antonio beat the Pistons for their third NBA championship. The series went seven games but was an unholy borefest I wish I could wash from my brain (Dear Spurs fan, if you want to disagree with this I do not care).

2007 Western Conference Semifinals - 3rd seeded Spurs defeat 2nd seeded Suns  (4-2)

  • Phoenix Suns: 61-21, coached by Mike D'Antoni
  • San Antonio Spurs: 58-24, coached by Gregg Popovich
  • Background: Coming off of a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2006, the Suns added Amar'e Stoudemire back (coming off microfracture) to a strong core and reeled off 61 wins. Initially Phoenix struggled to integrate Stoudemire into the lineup - getting off to a 1-5 start before peeling off win streaks of 15 and 17 games. Only Dallas winning 67 games kept the Suns from the top seed. The Spurs came into the '06-07 season with a bad taste in their mouth from losing to Dallas in the West semis the season before but this season was business as usual as the Spurs won 57 or more games (58) for the seventh straight season.
  • The Series: With the Mavericks having fallen to Golden State in the first round, it was well acknowledged that the winner of this second round series would probably be the NBA champs. The matchup paired the NBA's best offense against the NBA's best defense and generally didn't fail to disappoint. Game 1 will always be remembered for Steve Nash and his bloody nose. With 54 seconds remaining and the Spurs up 2 in the fourth (it was the Suns ball), Nash had to be pulled with a rather large cut on his nose that would require 6 stitches. By the time Nash returned 45 seconds later, Phoenix was down 4 and there were only 9 seconds left. Phoenix won 2 of the next 3 games to even the series...and then Robert Horry happened. With Game 4 well in hand, Robert Horry committed a flagrant foul that sent Nash into the sideline boards. Stoudemire and Boris Diaw "left the area of the bench" and were suspended for Game 5. The undermanned Suns actually led Game 5 at the end of the half and third quarter but the 6 man rotation featuring 36 minutes from Kurt Thomas (15/12) and 29 minutes from James Jones couldn't withstand the Spurs. San Antonio finished the Suns back in San Antonio in Game 6. 
  • Suns Leaders: Stoudemire averaged 26.4 points - including 38 in the elimination game - and 10.6 rebounds for the series. Nash was good for 21.3/12.7 in his 6 games while Shawn Marion went for 15.7/10.5, going for 24/17 when Diaw/Stoudemire were suspended. Boris Diaw averaged a whopping 5.6 points per game in his 5 appearances.  After watching J-Rich in the playoffs....still miss that guy? 
  • Spurs Leaders: I'll give you one guess as to who the major players were for the Spurs in this series. Hint - one is from the US Virgin Islands while the other 2 are from Argentina and France. Duncan was the leader at 26.8/13.7 for the series and the Spurs got their fourth scorer in the form of Michael Finley and his 13.3 points per game.
  • Fun Facts: I didn't think there was anything fun about this series.
  • To the winner: San Antonio beat the overmatched Jazz and Cavs to win their fourth NBA championship. The Spurs were defeated just once in the two series wins.

2008 Western Conference First Round - 3rd seeded Spurs defeat 6th seeded Suns (4-1)

  • Phoenix Suns: 55-27, coached by Mike D'Antoni
  • San Antonio Spurs: 56-26, coached by Gregg Popovich
  • Background: On the morning of February 6, 2008 the Phoenix Suns had a 34-14 record and sat in first place in the Western Conference when GM Steve Kerr decided they didn't have enough fire power to win the championship. Hoping to add that missing piece the Suns acquired Shaquille O'Neal in exchange for Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks. Phoenix went just 19-13 down the stretch and fell to the sixth seed in the West. San Antonio was the reigning NBA champs cruising into the playoffs in their typical below expectations fashion, hoping to again turn it on when the playoffs began.
  • The Series: Game 1 both began and ended this series. The Suns led by as many as 16 during the game but the Spurs played all Spurs-like and hung tough - cutting the lead to 6 by the beginning of the fourth quarter. Michael Finley hit a three at the end of regulation to send it to OT and Tim Duncan - who scored 40 in the game - hit a three to send the game into double OT, before the Spurs put it away. Phoenix was also in control of Game 2, leading by 7 at half - before falling apart in the third quarter and losing the game. The teams traded blowouts in Phoenix (Spurs getting Game 3 and Suns getting Game 4) before San Antonio finished the Suns in 5.
  • Suns Leaders: Amar'e Stoudemire led the Suns with 23.2 points per game and Shaq was good for 15.2/9.2 in the series. Steve Nash struggled a bit, shooting just 45.7% and 30% from three. Grant Hill missed the final two games of the series and was largely ineffective in the games he did play (3.7 points 5.3 rebounds) due to a groin injury. Hill's injury problems forced Gordan Giricek into heavy rotation.
  • Spurs Leaders: Same old story for the Spurs. Duncan averaged 24.8 per game for the series- including his 40 point explosion in Game 1- but it was Tony Parker's domination that paced San Antonio. Parker averaged 29.6 points for the series and predictably got to the rim at will.
  • Fun Facts: Kurt Thomas was on the Spurs roster after being a member of the Suns during the 2007 run. Phoenix traded Thomas to Seattle during the summer of 2007 (along with 2 first round picks) and Seattle turned him to San Antonio before the 2008 trade deadline. Seattle (now OKC) turned Kurt Thomas into 3 first round draft picks. Seriously. Game 5 was the final one as Suns coach for Mike D'Antoni.
  • To the winner: San Antonio dispatched the up and coming Hornets in the Western Semis before falling to the Lakers in 5 in the Western Conference Finals.

I realize that none of that was exactly pretty but the thing about history is that it's just that.....history.  Of the guys on the current Suns roster, only 4 have been a part of any of this history - Nash, Stoudemire, Barbosa, and Grant Hill (barely) - leaving guys like J-Rich, Dragic, Frye, and Amundson blissfully unaware of recent playoff struggles.  It's a new day Suns fans. 

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