Suns Throwback: Phoenix Big Man Trumps Lakers
George Mikan. Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. For decades, the Lakers had been home to the best pivot men in league history. The Suns' own pedigree in the paint hadn't been terrible -- Neal Walk and Alvan Adams had All-Star caliber seasons in their own right -- but Phoenix had simply never been able to go pound-for-pound against the purple-and-gold.
This was a big reason why Phoenix failed to "beat L.A." when it mattered most. Leading into 1990, the Suns were 0-6 all-time in postseason series against the Lakers. The streak was even longer for then-Phoenix head coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, who hadn't won on L.A.'s court since 1974 (a 37-game span).
For the first time Suns memory, however, Los Angeles was finally star-less in the middle. They did have a former No. 1 overall pick, but Mychal Thompson had never become the franchise player many predicted of the former Minnesota standout. Thompson was solid, not spectacular.
The Lakers' other big man was a promising European seven-footer. Vlade Divac was already showing promise despite his young age (21) and experiencing a Hollywood crash course in American life.
Yet neither the veteran nor the rookie were the seven-foot legends Phoenix was used to facing. The Lakers were still the Lakers, however, led by Magic Johnson and holding the No. 1 seed. Could the underdog Suns take advantage of a minor chink in L.A.'s armor?
The answer would be provided by Mark West, a journeyman veteran with a lunch-pail game. His arrival along with Kevin Johnsin via trade in 1988 had proven even more crucial than anticipated. That summer, long-time center and franchise face Alvan Adams chose to retire, leaving interior in the hands of West and 1988 draftee Andrew Lang.
West had found an increasing comfort zone playing off Johnson's penetration and All-Star forward Tom Chambers' scoring. His work was not complicated: protect the rim on defense and score sparingly and efficiently on offense. He did both at career-high levels in 1989-90 regular seaosn, posting personal bests in minutes (29.3 mpg), scoring (10.5 ppg), blocks (2.3 bpg) and rebounds (8.9 rpg).
His first postseason crack against the Lakers (1989) had not gone well. Despite starting every game, West averaged just 17.8 minutes, 2.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per contest. With little interior resistance, the Lakers had bullied their way to the 4-0 sweep.
In Game 1 of the 1990 rematch, it was clear L.A. was facing a different No. 41. West dominated the Laker frontline for 24 points, 16 rebounds and seven blocks while playing all by one minute in Cotton's streak-breaking 104-102 win.
The events of Game 2 made West and the Suns' brief triumph look like the fluke Laker faithful had labeled it. West (nine points, five rebounds) had little impact, while KJ and Chambers (21 points, 8-23 FG combined) had not matched Magic and James Worthy.
Back in desert, the Suns restored unthinkable hope. While Chambers (34 points) and Jeff Hornacek (29) were doing the heavy lifting, West was quietly going to work, putting up 14 points and three blocks. Thompson and Divac? Ten points and zero blocks between them. With the tables of the titans reversed, Phoenix rolled to a 2-1 series lead.
Fans smelled blood at home in Game 4, and West drove in wound after wound to satisfy them. The former Maverick, Buck and Cavalier cemented his place as a Sun with 15 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks. With him defending the rim, the Lakers were forced outside of their comfort zone. The result: just a 40.7-percent shooting clip.
Incredibly, a big man wearing purple-and-orange was dominating against the Lakers. Could it happen one more time?
West's answer came at the dreaded Forum in Game 5, where he gobbled up 16 rebounds (Divac and Thompson combined for 14) and added 10 points. The highlight came with a minute remaining. West saw his defender fade off him to contest a briefly open Hornacek. Instinctively, he rolled toward the rim. The ball met him half-way, then left him when he stuffed it through the hoop with his left hand.
Suns players on the court and the bench erupted. Like his overall play, West's dunk had signaled a changing of the guard in the West. No longer was Phoenix just a stop on the way to a Laker championship parade. They went on the clinch the series, 4-1. Including that franchise-altering moment, the Suns have beaten L.A. in four out of their last six postseason meetings.
The guy known as Big Daddy was a big reason.