The 1989-90 season saw the Lakers finish with the league's best record at 63-19. Pat Riley won coach of the year. Magic was the MVP. The Lakers entered the playoffs prepared to avenge a Finals sweep at the hands of the Pistons the previous year. After dispatching the Rockets in the first round, the next speed bump was the Phoenix Suns. This was a Phoenix Suns team the Lakers had dominated in six prior playoff series. A Phoenix Suns team that had routinely played the role of punching bag for the Showtime Lakers. A Phoenix Suns team the Lakers had swept out of the Western Conference Finals the preceding season. Then something completely unexpected happened. This wasn't the same Phoenix Suns.
That was when the rivalry started for me. The Suns dismantled the Lakers four games to one in that 1990 Western Conference Semifinal series, winning twice on LA's home court and twice by double digits at home. It is considered by some as one of the biggest upsets in NBA postseason history. That season was also the only time the underdog won in a playoff matchup between the teams. In the other 11 meetings the higher seeded team has always advanced. Including that series, the Suns have won four of the last six playoff series against the Lakers. Entering that series Los Angeles held a 23-6 record in postseason play against the Suns. Since then the Suns hold an 18-15 edge. For two+ decades the Suns hold the postseason head to head advantage.
Do the fans of the Lakers consider the Suns a rival? Possibly not. It's conceivable (maybe likely) that they are so self-absorbed and bursting with hubris that the Suns (with the fourth highest winning percentage in league history) aren't worthy of their consideration. The Lakers do have a special place in the pantheon of NBA basketball. They have been one of the most successful, entertaining, widely followed, and yes, hated, franchises in the league. Other teams share Phoenix's contempt for Los Angeles. It's not exactly a short line. The Suns and Lakers, however, seem to have a more inimical relationship based on the frequency of their reunions. After all, familliarity breeds contempt.
In the case of the Suns and the Lakers there's an abundance of hostility to go around.
I have come up with a set of criteria to define a rivalry which I think are apt guidelines for qualification.
1. Geography - The Lakers and Suns are both in the Pacific Division. California and Arizona are bordering states. In the last nine years only the Lakers (six) and Suns (three) have won the division title.
2. Frequency - The Suns have played the Lakers more times (283) than any other team. The Suns and Lakers have met in the playoffs six times since 1990. Including regular season and playoff games, the Lakers and Suns both have played more games against the other than any other teams since 1990.
3. History - Many of the playoff series have been memorable. 1990 was considered one of the biggest upsets in league history. The Suns 1993 comeback was highlighted by Westphal's prophecy. The 2006 series included a Raja Bell clothesline, a Tim Thomas three, and a Kobe Bryant capitulation. 2010 was highlighted by a devastating game winning tip by Ron Artest. Even regular season games have been contentious between the two teams.
4. Competitiveness - The Suns are 4-2 in six playoff series against the Lakers since 1990. Those four postseason series losses are the most by the Lakers against any team over that period. The Lakers have played the Spurs and Trailblazers in the playoffs more times over this period (seven each), but are 4-3 and 6-1 against them respectively. It could be argued that the Suns have had the most postseason success against the Lakers over the last 23 years. Overall, the Lakers are 62-51 against the Suns since 1990.
5. Animosity - Suns and Lakers coaches have exchanged jabs. Kobe Bryant hates the Suns. Raja Bell doesn't appear to like Kobe too much, either. There is no love lost between these teams for some time now. Suns fans detest the Lakers and abhor their fans. Lakers fans either have a mutual repugnance for Suns fans or disregard them completely as inferior - which makes Suns fans detest them even more. The vitriol has reached a level that many fans view the once cherished Steve Nash with disdain for his apostasy.
Los Angeles may be a Goliath of the NBA and Phoenix may be a David, but that hasn't prevented the Suns from knocking the supercilious Lakers off their pedestal on occasion. So stay arrogant Los Angeles. We'll remember that come playoff time when we're ready to bust you again. Does it sound like I've been trying to justify this as a rivalry? Good. Even more incentive for the Suns to kick the Lakers next time they're down.
The following is a list of playoff series and events that have stoked this rivalry since the Suns stunning upset in 1990.
Tale of the tape: Phoenix Suns vs. Los Angeles Lakers
All time regular season wins – Suns 91, Lakers 130.
All time playoffs wins – Suns 24, Lakers 38.
Suns have won 4 of last 6 playoff series, but are 4-8 overall.
The Suns have played more games against the Lakers (283) than any other team.
1993 First Round - Paul Westphal's prediction after game 2 loss. "I'll tell you what's going to happen," said Suns coach Paul Westphal following the Game 2 collapse. "We're going to go over to L.A. and win two games, and then we'll come back home and win Game 5, and everybody will say what a great series it was."
2000 Western Conference Semifinals - Suns stultified by Lakers as LA moves on to win championship.
2007 First Round - Suns dispatch Lakers for second consecutive season.
2010 Western Conference Finals - Ron Artest tips in game winner. Lakers win championship. Again.