As we enter the dog days of August, enjoy some classic Suns memories in our next series of Throwback Thursday pieces.
To start, let's look back on one of the great, underrated Suns moments. The 1989-90 Suns didn't make the NBA Finals, they didn't win an inordinate amount of regular season games (54), but they did feature a high-octane offense and, more importantly, they shook a long-time monkey off their backs by finally vanquishing the Lakers in the playoffs.
Before Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol tormented the Suns in the postseason, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Byron Scott, James Worthy and Wilt Chamberlain did. As our own Scott Howard documented before the last Suns heartbreaking playoff loss to the Lakers in 2010, the Lakers defeated the Suns the first 6 times they faced off in the postseason, including 5 times during the 1980s.
The 1990 Western Conference semifinal match-up didn't figure to go any differently. Having won the past three Western Conference crowns and two of the previous three NBA Finals, the Lakers rolled into the series as a 63 win juggernaut led by future HOF-ers Magic Johnson (the reigning league MVP) and James Worthy, and legendary coach Pat Riley. These were the "Showtime" Lakers and, despite the retirement of Jabbar, appeared to be at the peak of their powers.
Meanwhile, Cotton Fitzsimmons' Suns squad was led by two stars in Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers, plus a host of great role players including Jeff Hornacek, Eddie Johnson, Dan Majerle and Mark West. Though they won 9 fewer regular season games than the Lakers, this was a Suns team strong enough to finish 2nd in the league in scoring at 114.9, 3rd in O-Rating and 6th in D-Rating, with a PPG scored vs. surrendered average of 114.9-107.8.
It wasn't actually such a mismatch except for the "It's Lakers/Suns, so we all know how it will end" element. But cracks had formed beneath the surface of the Lakers dynasty, and their chemistry was crumbling beneath the tyrannical rule of Riley and Magic, as Jeff Pearlman chronicled in his 2014 book "Showtime."
Even still, the Suns 104-100 game 1 victory behind a monster, 24 point, 16 rebound and 7 blocked shot performance from West, who thoroughly dominated aging Mychal Thompson and rookie Vlade Divac, looked like a mirage after the Lakers turned the tables 124-100 in game 2.
Then the series shifted back to Phoenix tied at 1 game apiece, and the Suns made it look shockingly easy, winning 117-103 and then 114-101. The trio of Chambers, KJ and Hornacek combined for 85 points in game 3 and 80 in game 4. The Lakers looked old, rattled and outmatched as the Suns demonstrated the explosiveness at the top end of their roster in taking a commanding 3-1 lead heading into game 5.
Beyond the great individual performances by the Suns in the series, most Suns fans remember it in much the same way as the defeat of the Spurs in the 2010 playoffs: Until the final buzzer sounded on the Suns fourth win, it always felt like the enemy was soon to awaken and strike back. No lead felt safe. Loss after loss to the same franchise will do that to a fanbase.
Such was the feeling going into 1990 game 5 in LA versus the Lakers. Of course, the Lakers weren't going to go down easily, and jumped out to a 35-20 lead after the first quarter. Magic had a game befitting his legend with 43 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists, but was ultimately no match for the Suns two-headed monster of KJ and Hornacek. They went for a combined 59 points in constantly drawing fouls to finish 17-18 from the line, including the clinchers at the end.
Enjoy the drama of the final minute of the game, right after the Suns took the lead for good and held on for the 106-103 win to clinch the series.
Chambers, KJ and Hornacek each averaged over 20 PPG in the series, with KJ beasting for 22.0 points, 11.2 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game. West played his best ball as a pro in averaging 14.4 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game while shooting 69% from the field.
But the real story was the response of Suns fans. Beaten down for years by the Lakers, it was time to celebrate. Remember that in 1990, the Suns and Cardinals (recently moved from St. Louis, terrible at football and yet to establish a loyal following) were the only pro sports teams in town. At the time, Phoenix was a Suns city, and the estimated 9,000 fans who greeted the team at Sky Harbor Airport as their flight from LA returned proved this.
Per an LA Times story published May 16, 1990, the day after the Suns game 5 win, KJ expressed the optimism of the time:
"We want to be the team of the next decade," said Johnson, who scored a playoff career-high 37 points in Game 5. "We want to play well not just for one year, but for the decade. The way to do that is to start here."
It didn't exactly work out that way. The Suns lost the following Western Conference Finals to the Blazers, then went on to have a successful decade of the 90s, but with only one Western Conference title, zero league championships and several heartbreaking close calls to show for it.
As for the Lakers, that game 5 would be Pat Riley's last game coaching the team. Though his successor, Mike Dunleavy, led them to the Finals the next year, they'd lose to Michael Jordan's Bulls. Later in the summer of 1991, Magic Johnson was diagnosed HIV positive, and the Lakers would never be the same until the emergence of Kobe and Shaq in the late 90s. The 80's were over, and so was Showtime.
But in the wake of the series win, with the Suns finally slaying their longtime nemesis and fans reveling, it was only about that one glorious moment. We'll leave KJ, only 24 years of age at the time, with the last word:
"It's amazing how much basketball can do for the morale of a city"