For the third time in their history, the Phoenix Suns will face the Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs, this time locking horns in the 2022 Western Conference Semifinals. While they are 868 flight miles away and have played in the same conference since the Mavericks entered the NBA in 1980, these two franchises do not have a lengthy and distinguished postseason history.
But they do have history. And were are diving head first into that history. Grab your Spanarkel. You’re going to need it.
The Early Years
These two teams have met a total of 168 times in the regular season, with the Suns holding a 94-74 advantage. We’ve come a long way since the two teams first tipped off on October 21, 1980.
Dallas’ leading scorer that night was Jim Spanarkel with 22 off the bench. Now that’s a name, right? And makes the above reference makes sense. Nice call back. Phoenix took the game 111-99, led by 21 from Dennis Johnson and six Suns in double figures.
Throughout most of the history of both of these franchises, while one was enjoying success and postseason participation, the other was navigating the draft and attempting to improve their team. The Mavericks did not make the playoffs for the first three seasons of their existence which coincided with the Phoenix Suns’ final breath of the Walter Davis/Alvan Adams era.
In 1984, Mark Aguirre led the Mavericks to their first playoff participation, the same year a surprising 41-41 Suns club advanced to the Western Conference Finals.
Both teams avoided each other in the playoffs that season, and they would not meet in the postseason during the 1980s. Why? Because the sun was setting on Phoenix and rising in Dallas. The cocaine-fueled 80’s weren’t kind to the Suns, and as drug scandals hit Phoenix, the team went into rebuild mode.
Dallas, however, was getting stronger.
This culminated in a Western Conference Finals appearance for their franchise in the 1988 playoffs. A team that had Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, Sleepy Sam Perkins, and Detlef Schrempf would push Magic Johnson and the Lakers to a Game 7. They lost to LA, who won the championship, and after five consecutive playoff appearances without anything to show for it, Dallas was preparing to change directions.
While Dallas was shipping Mark Aguirre to the Detroit Pistons, who proved to be the missing link in the Motor City’s championship aspirations, the Suns had acquired Kevin Johnson and drafted Dan Majerle. In Phoenix, arrows were pointing up, as the Mavericks faded into obscurity.
They didn’t match up in the playoffs during the Barkley Era because, in 1992-93, the Mavericks won only 11 games. 9 of those games were won with Gar Heard as their head coach, of 1976 NBA Finals fame. If you are old enough to remember the 90’s, you’d recall that Dallas was kind of a joke during that time frame. Dallas did not win one playoff game in the entire decade.
That changed when Mark Cuban bought the team in 2000.
The Nash Saga
Dallas had drafted Dirk Nowitzki with the 9th pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, and after winning 19 games his rookie season, he and Steve Nash began developing chemistry in 1999-00. That team went 40-42, but 53-29 in 2001-02.
They were on to something in Dallas. Meanwhile, Phoenix was floundering with Backcourt 2000, and missed the playoffs two out of three seasons. Dallas made a Western Conference Finals appearance against the Spurs in 2003, but after a First Round exit in 2004, changes were seemingly needed in Dallas.
And that change was to not keep Steve Nash.
“That summer, he (Cuban) really didn’t make a big effort to keep me,” Nash told Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes in the All The Smoke podcast, via the Dallas News. “I think he thought he didn’t want to overpay — I think he’d overpaid a few guys, and didn’t want to overpay an aging point guard — and that’s how I ended up in Phoenix, really. I don’t think he was confident in my future at that point.”
Entering the 2004-05 season, both teams were finally playing well enough to make the postseason. And for the first time ever, they would meet, only 10 months after Nash chose Phoenix over Dallas...
2005 Western Conference Semifinals
In Phoenix, this marked the beginning of the Seven Seconds or Less Era. In 2005, they made their first playoff appearance with a groundbreaking offense that altered the trajectory of NBA history. After beating the Grizzlies in the first round, they faced a playoff-tested Dallas Mavericks club that had parted ways with Steve Nash the previous off-season. It was an opportunity for Nash to seek retribution on the team that had refused to re-sign him.
The Suns easily took Game 1 127-102 behind a dominant 40-point, 16-rebound performance by Amare Stoudemire. Joe Johnson had 25 points, Shawn Marion had 23 points and 11 boards, and Nash added 11 points and 13 assists. It was prior to this game that Steve Nash stood in the middle of America West Arena and hoisted the Most Valuable Player trophy, presented by David Stern.
We were reminded that extreme highs may suddenly turn into terrible lows. If you’re unfamiliar with the “Suns Can’t Have Nice Things” narrative, here is a chapter in the history class.
The pendulum swung back the other way for Game 2 as the Mavericks tied the series with a 108-106 victory, but the team took a massive hit in the game.
With 19.7 seconds left in the second quarter, trailing 54-45 to the Mavs, Joe Johnson received the ball in transition and went up for a dunk. Mavericks forward Jerry Stackhouse attempted to stop Johnson’s slam attempt near the rim, but Johnson landed awkwardly on his face.
It frustrates me to this day to see that play and Jerry Stackhouse will forever be on my list. The final diagnosis: an right orbital bone fracture. Surgery was required and Johnson wouldn’t play again in the series.
Paul Coro, then writer for the Arizona Republic, noted, “All season, you’re kind of just waiting for something to go wrong. The Suns were playing a real short rotation, so they didn’t have a ton of depth. They’re going super small, and now you lose a big guard who has made up for a lot of your frontcourt size. There was a lot of questions about whether that was gonna be the end of the road now.”
Game 3 went to Phoenix, winning easily 119-102 in Dallas. Marion, who had been 7-of-17 on three-pointers in the previous six postseason games, compensated for Johnson’s absence by hitting 5-of-7 from deep and scoring 21 points. Phoenix was 11-of-22 on three-pointers as a team and took a 2-1 series lead.
Dallas once again responded, posting a 10-point win in Game 4, 119-109, and tying the series. Steve Nash dropped 48 points (on 20-of-28 shooting) for the Suns, but received no help from their bench. The reserves scored a total of 3 points. “We felt that if we could allow [Nash] to score and not have all those other guys become involved in the offense, it would give us a better chance to win the game,” Jerry “on my list” Stackhouse said after the game.
Meanwhile, Dirk got his groove back (he was averaging 24 points in the first 3 games, but on 29-of-66 shooting) as he went for 25 on 60% shooting. Josh Howard went for 29 points and 10 rebounds, and Stackhouse added 22 from the bench.
It was the fourth-quarter efforts of Jim Jackson, former member of the Mavs, that pushed the Suns to a 114-108 victory in Game 5. He went 7-of-8 from the field in the fourth, scoring 15 of his 21 points in the final period as he filled in for Joe Johnson. Steve Nash was in MVP Mode as he posted a triple-double; 34 points, 12 assists, and 13 rebounds.
Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson said after the game, “Obviously, Nash still hurt us in the first half, but he was a monster in the second half. We came into tonight’s game trying to cut off some of his passing angles. We did not follow the game plan, and they just shredded us, shredded us to pieces.”
The Suns closed out the series in Dallas with a memorable Game 6 performance by Steve Nash. The Mavericks were in control for the majority of the game, but a furious fourth-quarter by the MVP put the Suns in position to clinch the series. Credit the likes of JAson Terry for hitting clutch shots, but no one was better than Steve on this day.
Nash scored eight points in the final minute of regulation, including an iconic three-pointer with 5.7 seconds left that forced overtime.
That fire carried over into overtime and the Suns clinched the series with a 130-124 win.
While the Suns moved on to face San Antonio, and Dallas was left wondering why they let Steve Nash leave, the Suns were unable to overcome Joe Johnson’s injury in Games 1 and 2. Although he returned in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, the San Antonio Spurs were already up 2-0 and would go on to win the series in five games.
I’ll always remember this series with resentment. Due to Joe Johnson’s injury, Steve Nash was pushed to perform at a higher level, and winning this series was crucial. However, the loss of Johnson robbed the club a chance at a championship. Johnson agrees. “There’s no way you can tell me we wouldn’t have been NBA champions if I hadn’t got hurt,” Johnson once stated.
2006 Western Conference Finals
One year later, the two teams would meet again in the playoffs, this time with a trip to the Finals on the line.
The Suns were coming off of a 54-28 finish in the regular season, good for second seeding in the Western Conference, and did it despite only 3 games from Amare Stoudemire that season. New additions Raja Bell and Boris Diaw had seamlessly integrated with the team and, due to his ability to lead the team to success without STAT, Steve Nash won his second consecutive MVP Award for his efforts.
Dallas was stronger than the year prior, finishing with the second best record in the NBA – but the fourth overall seed due to San Antonio’s winning of the Southwest Division with the best overall record – and led the league in offensive rating. Continuity and depth were their strengths as this Mavs team was battle tested and hungry for a chance at a title. They swept the Grizzlies in the First Round and, in an epic second round matchup, faced the #1 seed in the Spurs. 41 points from Tim Duncan couldn’t stop Dirk and crew from winning Game 7, 119-111.
Phoenix had their hands full in the First Round, tasked with dispatching the scoring champion, Kobe Bryant, and a post-Shaq Lakers team. Phoenix did so in seven games, but D’Antoni’s short rotations meant miles on the team, and by the time the Suns beat the Los Angeles Clippers in the Semifinals – also a seven game series – Steve Nash had played 568 minutes in the playoffs.
Playing Game 1 in Dallas, because even though Phoenix had the higher seeding, Dallas had the better record and therefore homecourt (sometimes I just don’t understand the NBA), the Suns found themselves down 9 points with 3:26 left to play in the game. Just a few moments prior, Phoenix was dealt a blow when Raja Bell had to leave the game with a strained left calf that turned out to be a slightly torn calf muscle. It’s an injury that would keep him out until Game 4.
They ended the game on a 16-4 run, led by Steve Nash, who scored 10 of those points. Phoenix snatched home court by winning 121-118.
Game 2 saw Phoenix score a season-low 17 points in the first quarter and 36.4% from the field in the fourth. Phoenix entered the fourth with a 77-75 lead, but Dirk Nowtizki’s 4-of-6 shooting, both from the field and from the line, led to 12 points. The Suns missed 13 of their last 18 shots in the game as they lost 105-98. Phoenix shot 25 less free throws than Dallas and the edge was 17-2 in Q4.
The third game of the series was another defensive victory for the Mavericks, holding the Suns to a playoff-low 88 points, as Dallas won 95-88. Dirk went for 28 points and 17 boards and the Mavs were playing physical and getting into the Suns’ heads.
When Josh Howard was called for a flagrant foul for hitting Tim Thomas in the face as the Phoenix forward drove to the hoop late in the first half, tempers boiled. As Thomas approached the foul line, he and Jason Terry exchanged shoves, resulting in technical fouls for both players. “We’re out there with our shoulders slumped, and we’re not smiling,” Nash observed after the game. “We’re not fighting. We’re not, you know, playing with the necessary fire it takes to win.”
Raja Bell made his return for Game 4 and it was the spark needed to tie the series 2-2. Dirk went 3-of-13 shooting and the Suns returned the defensive favor to the Mavs, winning 106-86.
Sadly, it was the last win of the season for the Suns.
The teams returned to Dallas and the Mavs convincingly took Game 5, 117-101, behind a 50-burger from Dirk Nowitzki. The Suns had 20 points in the fourth. Dirk had 22.
Dallas won the series in Game 6, when, despite a 16-point lead early in the game, Phoenix couldn’t overcome a problem that plagued them throughout the series: foul trouble. Dallas took 43 more FTA throughout the series, and their 31-20 advantage in Game 6 hindered the Suns from getting into any sort of rhythm. Dallas clinched the series with a 102-93 win.
Here we are, 16 years after the mid-2000s postseason battles, on a collision path for the chance to play in the Western Conference Finals. It’s a rubber match, with the winner claiming a 2-1 lead in the history series between these two franchises.
Their history goes beyond just the playoffs, however. These franchises are forever tied due to personnel and draft day “what if’s?”.
What is interesting about the relationship between the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks is how intertwined our personnel has been over the decades. Here is a list of players both franchises have shared:
- Jason Kidd — current Mavs’ coach, 7 seasons in Dallas, 5 seasons in Phoenix
- Steve Nash — 10 seasons in Phoenix, 6 seasons in Dallas
- Shawn Marion — 9 seasons in Phoenix, 5 seasons in Dallas
- Amare Stoudemire — 8 seasons in Phoenix, 23 games in Dallas in 2015
- Michael Finley — 9 seasons in Dallas, 2 seasons in Phoenix
- A.C. Green — 4 seasons in Phoenix, 3 seasons in Dallas
- Mark West — 8 seasons in Phoenix, 34 games in Dallas in 1983 as a rookie
- Oliver Miller — 3 seasons in Phoenix, 42 games in Dallas in 1996-97
- Cedric Ceballos — 6 seasons in Phoenix, 3 seasons in Dallas
- Jim Jackson — 5 seasons in Dallas, 2 seasons in Phoenix
- Kurt Thomas — 2 seasons in Phoenix, 5 games in Dallas in 1997
- Hot Rod Williams — 3 seasons in Phoenix, 25 games in Dallas to end his career in 1998-99
- Sam Cassell — 22 games in Phoenix, 16 games in Dallas
- Dennis Scott — 52 games in Dallas, 29 games in Phoenix
- Tony Delk — 2 seasons in Phoenix, 33 games in Dallas in 2003-04
- Tim Thomas — 46 games in Phoenix, 18 games in Dallas
- Vince Carter — 3 seasons in Dallas, 1 season in Phoenix
- Brandan Wright — 4 seasons in Dallas, 1 season in Phoenix
- Tyson Chandler — 4 seasons in Phoenix, 2 seasons in Dallas
- Quincy Acy — 10 games in Phoenix, 6 games in Dallas
- Seth Curry — 2 seasons in Dallas, 2 games in Phoenix
- Justin Jackson — 2 seasons in Dallas, 6 games in Phoenix
- Marquese Chriss — 2 seasons in Phoenix, in his first season with Dallas
- Jae Crowder — 3 seasons in Dallas, in his second season with Phoenix
- JaVale McGee — 1 season with Dallas, in his first season with Phoenix
Note that on the current Mavericks coaching staff is former Suns’ head coach Igor Kokoskov and former player Jared Dudley. Phoenix assistant Mark Bryant played 18 games for the Mavericks during the 2000-01 season.
The 2018 NBA Draft
For the first time in the franchise’s history, the Phoenix Suns were the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. The big question was who to draft. Would it be Deandre Ayton from the University of Arizona, who went to college nearby? Or would it be Luka Doncic, the young European prodigy with whom (then) head coach Igor Kokoshov had a relationship?
The Suns selected Ayton, and it was the Mavericks who moved up and got Luka from the Atlanta Hawks at number three. In that moment the Mavericks once again became a rival with a narrative.
Deandre Ayton played his first NBA game against Luka Doncic to start the 2018-19 season, with the Suns winning 121-100. It would be 1 of only 19 wins for Phoenix that season.
Since the 2018 NBA Draft the Phoenix Suns are 11-3 against the Dallas Mavericks. That includes 9 consecutive wins, which is the second longest such streak in the series between the two teams (Phoenix won 14 straight from 1992 to 1995).
But now the games will carry more weight to them. The two franchises have been on a postseason collision course since the 2018 NBA Draft, and in 2022, we are finally primed to see it occur.
I will always carry a special kind of disdain for the Dallas Mavericks. Sure, they didn’t affect my 90s. Growing up they were never a foe, rather, they were a team that we sent players I liked via trade. I loved Michael Finley. AC Green was solid. Cedric Ceballos was another fan favorite. Sure we got Jason Kidd, but the Mavericks took Finley from us, who I thought was the future of the Suns.
The San Antonio Spurs will be remembered as the villain of the Seven Seconds or Less era. But I’ll never forget the crushing blows dealt by the Mavericks, one delivered by Jerry Stackhouse and the other depriving us of a championship opportunity by defeating the Suns in the Western Conference Finals.
So here we are now. The Suns just won the most games in the history of the franchise. But in order to achieve the ultimate success, standing in front of them is that silver and royal blue.
Time to write the next chapter in the history of these two franchises. With a Spanarkel.