From the coin that cost the team Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1969 Draft, to Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, Phoenix Suns history is dotted with rivals who crushed the heart of the organization’s best teams. One of those excellent rivals was the legendary Kobe Bryant, a man who lived to break the hearts of his opponents.
Bryant played 64 games against the Suns and within those games, he’s averaged 26 points, five assists and about six rebounds a game. These weren’t the most he averaged against an opponent by any means, but this rivalry truly gained its notoriety in the playoffs.
By the time Byrant was drafted in 1996, the Suns had fallen out of the Finals conversation within the NBA. They would still make the playoffs but after four straight first round exits, the team had missed their window. The first time the Suns met the Kobe-Shaq Lakers in the second round of the 2000 NBA Playoffs, the Suns were the fifth seed and the Lakers were the No. 1 seed. It would be their first series loss to Bryant, as the Suns would lose in 5 games to the eventual NBA champions. Kobe didn’t take over the series, scoring 25 points twice, but the team was able to flex their muscle and dominate the Suns.
It was during the 2000s that we saw this rivalry truly blossom. Bryant’s Lakers met the Suns three more times in the postseason, and the Suns would take two of three series against him, but the Suns weren’t able to capitalize on their success.
In 2006, the Suns faced a Lakers team where Kobe was the undisputed star and in his prime, averaging 35 points in the regular season. The Suns were down 3-1 in the series but the Lakers collapsed and lost the series to the Suns. Game 7 was brutal, with Bryant taking just one shot in the entire second half.
The very next year, Kobe and the Lakers would lose in five games to the Suns. Individually, Bryant played well in these two series, averaging nearly 30 points a game. However, the team itself wasn’t good enough to get past the Seven Seconds or Less Suns. Those two years (and the year prior) that Suns core was arguably at their peak, while the Lakers weren’t good enough to help Bryant close the gap.
The last time the Suns faced the Lakers and Kobe in the playoffs was the last time the Suns made the playoffs, back in 2010. It was the Conference Finals, and both teams held serve on their home court to make a 3-2 series for Game 6. The Lakers had a chance to end it in Phoenix and Kobe delivered for his team, scoring 37 to close the door on the Suns and kill their Finals aspirations and win Kobe his fifth ring in expense of the Boston Celtics.
That was the Suns’ last chance to win a title with their core as Stoudemire would leave in free agency that offseason, Steve Nash would be gone after two more disappointing seasons and the team has been stuck in this rebuilding loop since. The Suns have had their fair share of success over Kobe, specifically when he was at his individual peak. Yet it feels right that it was Kobe, the man who earned the respect and hatred of his opponents and their fans by his cutthroat play and ruthless desire to win, was the one to deny the Suns their last run for a ring.
He tore your heart on that court and though you hated him for doing so, you couldn’t keep your eyes off him when he did play. He was truly one of a kind.