Throwback Thursday: KJ Leads Dramatic Playoff Push
by Matt Petersen

If the current Suns team is looking for motivation in their own late-season stretch, the 1996-97 season isn’t a bad place to start. That Suns team endured:

  • An 0-13 start to the season
  • a coaching change (Cotton Fitzsimmons to Danny Ainge)
  • Charles Barkley being traded before the season
  • Three trades during the season, including a six-player whopper with Dallas that netted Jason Kidd in exchange for Michael Finley, A.C. Green and Sam Cassell

On today’s date in 1997, the Suns found themselves trailing the Los Angeles Clippers for the eighth and final playoff spot by three games with 20 remaining on the schedule.

The next night, they beat the Clippers to shorten the gap in the standings. That win started an avalanche of late-season victories as the Suns won 16 of the final 20 games of the season. Several of those wins came against then-elite teams, including the Houston Rockets (twice) and Seattle Supersonics (twice).

Kevin Johnson led the charge for Phoenix, averaging 24.5 points, 9.8 assists and 1.4 steals per game while shooting 51.9 percent overall and 46.2 percent from three over the final 20 games of the season. Kidd, who missed six weeks after coming to Phoenix due to a fractured collarbone, teamed up with Johnson to form one of the fastest and most versatile backcourts in the league.

The Suns’ late-season surge propelled them from ninth to seventh in just over a month. That momentum nearly carried them to a first-round upset over second-seeded Seattle. Phoenix led the series 2-1, but lost Game 4 at home in overtime before ultimately falling in Game 5.


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