Original Old School: Road Rules
SLAM 29: After the Bulls took two straight in the ’93 Finals, everyone thought the Suns were history. Except for the Suns.
As we inch closer to the Finals, it’s time to look back at one of the all-time Finals classics, Game 3 of the ’93 Finals. MJ, Sir Charles and Pip. 3 OTs. Published in SLAM 29, you forget just how colorful Barkley was before he got into the booth.—Ed.
by Jeramie McPeek
“I don’t remember that game,” says current Phoenix coach Danny Ainge, then a guard for the Suns. “I remember we won. I remember it was exciting, but that’s all I remember.”
Perhaps the stresses and pressures of being a head coach have played havoc with Ainge’s memory. Or maybe when you play in 27 Finals games over a 14-year career, it’s too difficult to remember the details of any one in particular. Probably even more so when said series didn’t end in a championship, unlike Ainge’s ’84 and ’86 trips with the Celtics.
But for the likes of Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle, All-Stars who have never gotten closer to a championship than that series, Game Three will always be a high point of their careers.
“Oh, no question,” Barkley says solemnly, as if thinking back on the good ol’ days. “That was a great game.”
For Sir Charles and the Suns, the ’92-93 run was unquestionably their best ever. Phoenix tipped off the season in the newly opened America West Arena, in bright new unis with new head coach Paul Westphal and with a new cast of characters which included Ainge (a free-agent signee) and Barkley (traded from Philly). Putting Ricki Lake’s makeovers to shame, the new and improved Suns rolled to a franchise-record, league-best 62 Ws.
Meanwhile, with only a three-month recess coming off back-to-back championships, the Bulls were a bit drained entering the season-especially Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, who had spent several weeks on the world’s court in Barcelona with Sir Charles. Chicago still managed to pull out a 57-25 record but were without the home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals against New York and in the NBA Finals.
No matter-despite raucous sellout crowds in Phoenix, the home-court edge was of little help to the Suns. They were very nearly Finals bystanders after dropping two-straight at home to the eighth-seeded Lakers in the best-of-five opening-round series. In fact, if not for rookie center Oliver Miller’s seven blocks and 14 boards in the decisive Game Five, the Sonics would have most likely been the Bulls’ opponents in ’93.
Seattle, led by a 24-year-old GP and a 23-year-old Reignman, took Phoenix to the brink in the Conference Finals, after the Suns had thumped San Antonio in the Semis. Then Barkley, named the League’s Most Valuable prior to the series, dropped 44 points and grabbed 24 rebounds in a do-or-die Game Seven win, pointing out his climbing digits each time he passed George Karl’s bench.
After the victory and under a downpour of confetti, Barkley proclaimed that the Suns were a team of destiny. God wanted Phoenix to win the championship. Or so he spouted.
While God was likely not rooting for one team over the other, the Finals pairing was the one NBC’s peacock had been praying for. Sir vs. Air, then the game’s two most popular players, but also two prime targets for controversy. During the playoffs, Barkley blasted the media after reports of an alleged fling with Madonna surfaced. Jordan boycotted the press when a book claiming he had a gambling problem was released the week before the championship series.
However, MJ’s silence was broken and his spirits lifted after the Bulls stole a page from the Lakers book and swiped the first two games in Phoenix. Homecourt advantage-what homecourt advantage? The Suns, who’d lost slashing forward Cedric Ceballos to a broken foot during the Sonics series, seemed to have misplaced the confidence that had brought them to the Finals for the first time since ’76.
Of course, it didn’t help matters that KJ, the team’s explosive floor general, was MIA. With two games under his belt, he had totaled only 15 points and eight assists to go with nine turnovers.
“When I walked into Chicago, I had a lot of fans here,” Johnson joked after his heroic performance in Game Three. “I guess they liked the way I played in Games One and Two.” His earlier struggles even drew boos from a portion of the Phoenix faithful, which in turn produced a cursing out from Barkley.
Entering that now-infamous game at Chicago Stadium, where the Bulls were undefeated during the playoffs, the Suns looked finished. Not only had KJ seemingly misplaced his game, but Barkley, who’d fallen on his right elbow late in Game Two, couldn’t lift the swollen limb above his shoulder an hour before tip-off.
However, Suns coach Paul Westphal had no intentions of conceding the “three-peat.” He decided to mix things up a bit when handing out his defensive assignments. Barkley was given center Bill Cartwright, and Suns center Mark West was asked to cover forward Ho Grant. Rookie phenom Richard Dumas-most recently in Europe after serving a couple of drug-related suspensions-was switched from Scottie Pippen to B.J. Armstrong, and Dan Majerle took over on Pip. That left the 6-1 Johnson on the 6-6 NBA scoring leader and the greatest to ever play the game: Jordan.
“I had been playing terrible before then, offensively particularly, and what Paul did was switch me on Jordan-I didn’t have time to think about offense and somehow they both just clicked,” recalls KJ, who played a record 62-and-a-half of the marathon’s 63-minutes, totaling 25 points and nine assists. “For me in my career, that was one of the best coaching decisions that’s ever been made.”
The strategic maneuvering appeared to be a work of genius in the opening minutes: the Bulls were disoriented, and the Suns jumped out to an early lead. Dumas scored the first points with a nasty jam, KJ drove the middle for an easy lay-in and Barkley, who’d had the fluid drained from his appendage and was sportin’ a giant diaper-looking pad around his ‘bow, knocked down a three-pointer from the top of the arc.
“I’m the best one-armed player in the world,” he’d spout after his 24-point, 19-board showing.
Chicago was quick to make adjustments, however, and the two teams traded buckets and leads throughout the first three quarters But with Barkley and Jordan, golfing partners between games, both on the pine at the top of the fourth, the Suns took control. The two superstars returned three minutes in, only to meet in a collision when Charles spun Mike like wool on a hard foul.
“They can be friends after the game, but not now,” Magic told Marvelous in the broadcast booth.
Under double- and even triple-team pressure, Jordan had a very unlike Mike fourth, hitting on only one of his 10 attempts in the period. He did finish the night with a typical 44 points, but needed 43 shots to do so.
“MAN! Michael Jordan shot the ball 43 times,” Barkley burst out when handed a box score in the post-game press conference. “Damn. That’s unbelievable. He’s going to be icing his elbow too.”
Despite an 11-point fourth-quarter lead, the Suns were unable to polish off Chicago in regulation. Armstrong drilled a three. Pippen inbounded the ball off Ainge’s back under the basket, caught it and dunked. Grant had a slam of his own and a putback off a Jordan miss. And the Bulls came rallying back to tie things up at 103. They even had a chance to win it, but Horace fumbled a tip-in at the buzzer. OT No. 1.
There isn’t much to tell about the first extra stanza. Both teams struggled, hitting only four shots between them in the five minutes. In fact, the biggest shot of the period was the three-pointer launched by a completely wide-open Ainge that bounced off the front of the tin as time expired. Again.
Pippen, lying on the wood, holding his cramping thigh, was helped to the bench for a quick massage and a little ice as OT No. 2 got underway. As the two teams traded punches like groggy heavyweights going the distance, Jordan went for the knockout, scoring on a layup and then a jumper to give his Bulls a four-point lead in the closing minute.
But Barkley counter-punched with a jumper of his own. Jordan missed with 10 ticks left. KJ drove the length of the floor and dished to Majerle behind the three-point line. Pump faking B.J. out of his shorts, he stepped under the flying defender and buried another game-tying J. Pippen missed the game-winning attempt this time, and it was on to a third overtime.
“It was a momentum game,” Barkley says. “You thought you’d won it, you thought you had lost it, but we just hung in there and got a break.”
Unlike Game Five of the ’76 Finals, when the Suns fell to the Celtics in three OTs at Boston Garden, Phoenix (finally) caught all the breaks in this eerie re-make. “Thunder Dan” canned his sixth three-pointer of the night to open the period-from about 28 feet out-and the Suns never looked back.
The win was signed, sealed and delivered when Barkley snagged an errant pass from Bulls forward Stacey King under the Suns basket and scored.
“Stacey King got the ball and didn’t want it,” Barkley explains succinctly. “He didn’t want it, because the game was on the line. And I knew he was going to throw it to Michael. I stole it and laid it in.”
The final score was Phoenix 129, Chicago 121, but the tell-tale signs of the game were the ear-to-ear grin plastered on Barkley’s mug and the mixed look of frustration and exhaustion on Jordan’s.
“I felt it was a great game,” Michael said that night, “but not one of the greatest I’ve ever played in, because we lost.”
Tell that to Charles.