Most rivalries come from the same bloodline. They are born of geography and tradition. They stand the test of time.
But the best rivalries are the volcanic eruptions, the spontaneous combustions, engendered by the fires of contempt. They burn hot and they die out quickly, when a score is finally settled.
It’s the Jordan’s Bulls versus the Bad Boy Pistons. It’s Terrell Suggs’ Ravens versus Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers.
It’s the Suns and the Mavericks, a grimy grudge festival that will resume on opening night in Phoenix, a rivalry best defined by the names on the backs of jerseys.
When last seen, the Mavericks were screaming and screaming to get out of the Footprint Center, after handing the Suns one of the most embarrassing losses in NBA history. The Suns trailed by 30 points at home at halftime in Game 7 of the Western Conference Semifinals. The crowd was stunned, shocked and reduced to audible gasps. Those in the building will never forget those awful sounds.
When it was over, many Dallas players openly mocked Phoenix fans who chanted “Suns in Four!” after game 2.
“Suns in what? they collectively chanted after Game 7. “Suns in what?”
I watched them all thunder their way to the locker room. And then I saw Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd wink at me, a former player who once ran the show in Phoenix, who knew exactly what he had done to the Suns.
The series was full of antagonists. After a torrid win that gave the Suns a 2-0 series lead, Devin Booker and Chris Paul seemed to identify Luka Doncic as the pigeon, the weak link in the opposing defense. During Game 5, Booker trolled Doncic by playing dead under the basket, only to raise his head, glance at a fan, and call his performance the “Luka Special”.
In retrospect, it was an embarrassing and exceedingly rare display of immaturity.
Doncic responded with the force of Thor’s hammer. He called out the Suns for being classic favorites, for yelping when things go their way. He had as many points at halftime in Game 7 as the entire Suns team (27). He put Booker in his place, something few NBA players have been able to accomplish.
This isn’t the first time the Suns/Mavericks have presented themselves as a rivalry. In an earlier era, Steve Nash really wanted to prove Mark Cuban wrong, the Mavericks owner who wouldn’t pay Nash out of fear for his long-term health. Nash settled that score by winning back-to-back MVP trophies.
As the fruits of the 2018 NBA Draft began to bloom, a Suns-Mavericks rivalry seemed inevitable and unavoidable, forever tied to the careers of Doncic and Deandre Ayton, who was selected No. 1 overall and two places ahead of the Mavericks superstar.
Now it has gone from simmering to boiling. They have JaVale McGee. We have an NBA team that desperately needs revenge. We have a point guard who may still be angry at his mother’s treatment at the American Airlines Center. But moving forward, it’s really Doncic versus Booker. Heavyweight against heavyweight. The way the NBA demands it.
Kobe Bryant once wrote the words “Be Legendary” on a pair of shoes he gave Booker. But Doncic showed Booker how it was done, temporarily kicking him off the top table of the NBA’s top flight. And now it’s time for atonement, starting with a pound of flesh on opening night.