Commentary

Suns-Spurs greatest first-round series ever? Not so fast

Originally Published: April 22, 2008
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

Manu GinobiliJoe Murphy/NBAE via Getty ImagesManu Ginobili hits the game-winner in what many are saying is the best Game 1 of the playoffs ever.
SAN ANTONIO -- It's two of the teams from the NBA's short list of clubs capable of winning the whole thing. Two teams -- yes, both -- for whom a first-round exit would be considered disastrous.

That's not supposed to happen this early.

And that's largely why Spurs versus Suns -- with a nice nudge from maybe the greatest Game 1 of all time -- is already being described as the Greatest First-Round Series Ever.

One question, though. How high is the bar?

As the Spurs and Suns prepare to serve up Tuesday night's Game 2, it's worth remembering that the NBA has a pretty decent history of Round 1 fun, giving these West rivals lots to do over the next six games if they want to leapfrog to the top of the list. Consider what's happened just since 1983-84, when the playoff field was expanded to eight teams in each conference:

Best first-round series of the modern era

If there's been a better one than Phoenix coming back from a 3-1 deficit to oust Kobe Bryant's Lakers in 2006, well, please send us some YouTube links. Or some plain old tape.

Big names. Buzzer-beaters. Overtimes galore. A suspension, too.

What didn't that series have?

The Lakers' Game 4 triumph, famed for Kobe's overtime dagger at the horn after a controversial jump ball and Bryant's tricky baseline drive to force OT, was as wild as any of L.A.'s magic moments at Staples Center, right up there with the fourth-quarter comeback from 15 points down against Portland in Game 7 of the 2000 season or even Robert Horry's triple from the top of the 3-point arc to stop Sacramento from taking a 3-1 lead in the 2002 West finals.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesKobe's late-game heroics in Game 4 set the stage for the Suns' series comeback from down 3-1.

The Suns' answer wasn't bad, either. Having already won 54 games without the injured Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix had to win Game 6 in L.A. without the banned Raja Bell after Bell's vicious clothesline takedown of Bryant in Game 5. Yet you can still picture Tim Thomas waving his hand in front of his face after the triple that took the Suns to overtime and ultimately saved them on a night Kobe scored 50.

The 2006 playoffs were simply the greatest of my adult life -- those 18 games decided by three points or fewer, 10 that went to OT and four separate Game 7s -- and this was the best first-round series I can remember. Even the Suns' supposedly anticlimactic 31-point rout in Game 7 will never be forgotten because of Bryant's infamous refusal to take more than three shots in the second half.

Best first-round resurrection before that

Before 2001, Dallas hadn't even been to the playoffs since 1990.

So what chance did you really give Michael Finley, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki to recover from 2-0 down to the sages from Utah in the second-to-last year of the best-of-five format … and then erase a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter of Game 5 in the house that Stockton-to-Malone built?

Exactly.

The Mavs' 2001 resuscitation was the fifth and final comeback from 2-0 down in the best-of-five era. Denver over Seattle in 1994 was an unquestionably bigger surprise in seeding terms, with the 42-win Nuggets taking Game 5 on the road against the 63-win Sonics, but Dallas over Utah was no less improbable, starting the streak of three consecutive first-round exits that brought an end to Karl Malone and John Stockton's Hall of Fame partnership.

Best first-round showdown ever before this Spurs-Suns showdown ... statistically speaking

I've been bracing for and thinking about this Spurs-Suns showdown for weeks and didn't hear a soul bring this up until Brett Edgerton of ESPN Research hit me with this fact Monday: Only once before, since the current 16-team playoff format was introduced in 1984, have we seen two 55-win teams dueling in Round 1.

Yup. Spurs versus Suns … in 1998.

Just don't ask for a game-by-game recap. San Antonio won the series in four games, but I don't recall much about the matchup beyond people calling it the "Charmin Series" because both San Antonio and Phoenix were considered soft in those days … and a fun little scrap between Avery Johnson and the Suns' third-string point guard. Guy named Steve Nash.

Best first-round series of the upset variety

You've got to give me two here.

We can all agree that no picture in NBA history screams upset like the shot of Dikembe Mutombo falling flat on his back, clutching the ball with a mixture of ecstasy and disbelief in 1994 after his Nuggets became the first No. 8 seed to topple a No. 1 by winning that Game 5 in Seattle over the SuperSonics of Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp.

Still …

[+] EnlargeBaron Davis
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesAs far as playoff upsets go, Warriors over Mavs is up there with Nuggets over Sonics.

I can't rate it higher than last season's Golden State shocker over Dallas. Give me one tie, please.

The Mavs had just won 67 games. The Warriors needed an 8-1 finish to the regular season just to get into the playoffs … for the first time since 1994.

Add up the Warriors' 12-season postseason drought and the fact that they needed four wins instead of three to advance -- and remembering that the Dubs knocked Nowitzki out of the playoffs before he could collect his MVP trophy -- and Golden State (with its unforgettable crowd noise) is right there with the Nuggets.

With Miami losing in a first-round sweep to Chicago in the East, Dallas' early exit meant that both teams in the 2006 NBA Finals were bounced in Round 1, which hadn't happened since 1956.

Best first-round upset that really didn't stun anyone too much

History tells us that the Knicks of 1999 are the most successful No. 8 seed of all time.

They won a Game 5 on the road in Miami in the first round on the kind shooter's bounce Allan Houston got, then swept Atlanta and outlasted Indiana to reach the NBA Finals.

Just don't forget that 1999 was the lockout-shortened season. You certainly can debate Phil Jackson's long-held contention that an asterisk should be attached to the Spurs' championship, but you can't contest the notion that the Knicks weren't a typical No. 8. They were 27-23 in the highly irregular season; Miami was just six games better at 33-17.

Best first-round battle known for a brawl

It's the one we all remember best, anyway: Jeff Van Gundy desperately clutching Alonzo Mourning's leg in the midst of Zo's scuffle with New York's Larry Johnson in 1998's first round … also won by the Knicks in a Game 5 in Miami with Zo and LJ both suspended.

Best first-round sweep that was nonetheless historic

Guessing that I won't get too much dissent here if I rewind to 1986 and go with Celtics 3, Bulls 0.

Guessing that you haven't forgotten about a certain Michael Jordan, who, having missed most of the season with a foot injury, led a 30-52 Chicago team into Boston Garden and scored a playoff-record 63 points in a 135-131 Game 2 defeat in double overtime to the eventual champs.

Guessing that you haven't forgotten how Larry Bird described him that night as "God disguised as Michael Jordan."

Right?

Best first-round ending/inspiration for future Gatorade commercials

It apparently wasn't sufficiently torturous that Jordan's Bulls beat Cleveland in five games in 1988's first round after MJ's teams went 1-9 in his first three trips to the playoffs as a pro.

In 1989, Jordan scarred Clevelanders forever by drilling his famous hanging J over Craig Ehlo to win another Game 5, this one on the Cavs' floor.

Best first-round drama built on a gutsy guarantee

Is there a second place here?

Phoenix wins 62 games in 1992-93 in its first season after trading for Charles Barkley, then loses the first two games at home to an eighth-seeded Lakers team whose leading scorer is not James Worthy, Byron Scott or Vlade Divac. It's Sedale Threatt.

The top-seeded Suns then responded by winning the next three games -- Game 5 did go to overtime, mind you -- to back up the boldest of responses by Suns coach Paul Westphal.

"I'll tell you what's going to happen," Westphal famously said when Phoenix went down 2-0, heaping pressure on a team that wound up going all the way to the Finals.

"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."

[+] EnlargeTracy McGrady
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesTracy McGrady and Doc Rivers were oh-so-close to advancing to the second round in 2003.

Best first-round reminder why you have to be careful about what you say

Round 1 was extended from best-of-five to best-of-seven for the 2002-03 season.

That made it easy for pundits to joke that Tracy McGrady apparently forgot about that little rule change after leading the eighth-seeded Magic to a 3-1 series lead over No. 1 Detroit, because T-Mac dared at this point to describe how it might feel to finally advance.

"For me, a guy who hasn't experienced the second round, that would be great," T-Mac said.

He was responding to a question about finishing off the Pistons off in Game 5. Sadly for T-Mac, though, no one ever tells the story that way. Orlando got pounded in the next three games, and NBA legend turned McGrady into the guy who prematurely proclaimed Detroit to be done.

Best first-round roller coasters that just turned weird in Game 7

Both were in 2005. In the West: Dallas loses the first two games at home to Houston under rookie coach Avery Johnson and winds up winning Game 7 by 40. In the East: Indiana could have closed out Boston with a Game 6 victory at home, but loses in overtime … and then crushes the Celtics in Game 7 by 27 on the road.

Best first-round childhood memories

I was 15 when the NBA went to a 16-team tournament and remember that postseason as my first in Southern California that I had cable TV access to games that didn't involve the Lakers.

I also remember being a rather pumped little sports geek in that glorious spring of 1984 to see so much of Micheal Ray Richardson's greatest NBA achievement (leading No. 6 New Jersey past the defending champs from Philly with a Game 5 win on the road) and also be able to watch my favorite player of the day -- New York's incomparable Bernard King -- tape up all his fingers and ring up 44 points to Isiah Thomas' 40 in a Game 5 win at Detroit.

Best of the first-round rest

In chronological order …

Dallas beating Seattle, 105-104, in a Game 5 overtime thriller that (A) represented the Mavericks' first series win as a franchise and (B) had to be played at SMU's Moody Coliseum because the annual World Championship Tennis stop in Big D had commandeered Reunion Arena …

Seattle getting its revenge in 1987 as a 39-win No. 7 seed by eliminating 55-win Dallas in
four …

Golden State becoming the first team to overcome a 2-0 deficit in the new best-of-five format by beating Utah in Games 3, 4 and 5 in '87 …

New York doing the same to Boston in 1990 …

The defending champs from Houston winning Game 5 at Utah in 1995 as a sixth seed to start their "don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion" run …

Seattle surviving Rex Chapman's one-legged bomb off a crosscourt inbounds pass to win Games 4 and 5 and outlast Phoenix in 1997 …

Larry Bird overcoming a head injury to win a Game 5 gunslinging duel with Indiana's Chuck Person in 1991 …

No. 8 Indiana taking a deciding Game 5 all the way to double overtime to No. 1 New Jersey in 2002 …

Portland threatening to become the first team in NBA history to successfully come all the way back from a 3-0 deficit to Dallas in 2003 before the Mavs win Game 7 …

That LeBron James kid leading Cleveland to one-point overtime victories over Washington in Games 5 and 6 in 2006 in his first-ever playoff series.

P.S. Has anyone considered that Saturday's double-overtime classic isn't even the automatic No. 1 Game 1 in Spurs-Suns playoff history? Surely you haven't forgotten Phoenix winning Game 1 in San Antonio in 2003 when Amare Stoudemire banked in a 3-pointer to force overtime … setting up Stephon Marbury to win the game with a banked triple at the OT horn from even farther away.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics