Bulls' third-straight title in 1993 was more than just another title defense
It transpired in just 10.2 seconds, a tiny blip on the landscape of a six-game series. But for the fans and players of the 1993 NBA Finals, they were some of the most memorable moments of their lives. MJ to B.J., B.J. to Scottie, Scottie to Ho Grant, Ho Grant to Pax (John Paxson, pictured above). Catch, shoot, win.
Make the evening news. Make history. Three in a row on a three-pointer. No mercy. That’s the way it’s done.
The 1993 NBA Finals was the series that had everything: teams coming back from seemingly insurmountable deficits, an epic overtime battle, star players taking each other to the brink and back again, little guys stepping up big. And it ended with a victory that almost wasn’t, won by a last-second shot. You couldn’t ask for anything more from a championship series, except to have it go on forever.
For Chicago, getting to the NBA Finals was old hat. Still going strong after winning two titles, their regular-season record fell off a bit in ’92-93, landing them a two-seed in the East. But they were still the team to beat. For Phoenix, it was their first trip to the big dance since ’76. After coming closer each year to emerging victorious from the West, they had acquired the final piece of the puzzle in an offseason trade for Charles Barkley. Barkley had responded with a career season, winning the NBA MVP award. The Suns owned the best record in the League (62-20) in ’92-93, but they still had to fight and scratch their way past conference foes, coming back from an 0-2 deficit in the first round and winning 4-2 and 4-3 in the Western Conference Semis and Finals.
Former Suns point guard Kevin Johnson insists the tough journey didn’t faze them. “We felt invincible. When you are facing elimination games something like five times and win them all, you start to believe you can overcome anything.”
That’s what they would have to do to get the ring. Although the Suns had home court advantage, Chicago was a scary NBA Finals road team, with a record of 5-1 going into the ’93 playoffs. They had Michael Jordan. They were repeat champions. They’d just finished a grueling playoff series of their own, as the Knicks had pushed them to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. From their first championship to their third, nine players on the Bulls’ roster remained the same. They knew how to win.
The Bulls’ winning ways showed up bright and early; they jumped to a 2-0 series lead, winning 100-92 and 111-108. Phoenix was mortified—no team had ever before dropped the first two games of an NBA Finals series at home.
“It sounds crazy because you think you’d be more relaxed at home, but we seemed to focus much better on the road,” Paxson says now. “When you come home, there’s just a ton of distractions. But we hadn’t been in that position before where we had to win one on the road in order to win the championship. We always had home court advantage.”
“I think inexperience really cost us dearly,” says current Suns assistant GM Mark West, Phoenix’s starting center in ’92-93. “There was no doubt in our minds at that particular time, particularly since we had home court, that we could beat the Bulls. But the intensity just went up another whole notch that I don’t think we were prepared for. It took us two games—unfortunately, two home games—to wake up.
“It was very humbling. I didn’t imagine first of all that we’d lose the first home game, and then not winning the second one was devastating. You lose the first one, it hurts. But losing the second one really hurts, because now you’re down 0-2 and you haven’t won at home and you’re going to their court and it’s just an uphill struggle.”
In the middle of all this, often forgotten in favor of Paxson’s series-winning trey, was the longest game in NBA Finals history, a Game 3 triple-overtime grudge match that ended with a Suns victory, 129-121. (Coincidentally, the only other triple-overtime NBA Finals game was played by the Suns in ’76.) KJ played 62 minutes and Dan Majerle had zero turnovers in 59 minutes—both NBA Finals records.
Jordan and Barkley went head-to-head in the 1993 NBA Finals.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
“Without a doubt that was the most physically—and mentally—draining game I’ve ever been a part of,” Johnson says. “We were facing a must-win situation on the road against the best team with the greatest player ever to play the game. This game required a mindset like we had never experienced. [But] despite being down 2-1, our confidence was a mile high.”
Chicago bounced back to a 111-105 victory as MJ put up 55 points on 57-percent shooting, breaking the home court curse and preventing Phoenix from regaining home court advantage. Barkley had a triple-double, but it wasn’t enough to put a stopper in the Michael show. Jordan eventually set an NBA Finals record by averaging 41.0 ppg for the series, edging out Rick Barry’s ’67 average of 40.8. The Suns pulled out a 108-98 win in Game 5, and Barkley joked to the press that the team had saved Chicago from burning down by preventing a celebratory riot. But Barkley, KJ and crew were approaching their limit. Jordan had carried his team to a 3-2 lead and showed no signs of slowing down.
“When [Jordan] drops 40 or more on you in four straight games, including a 55-point effort, there really isn’t much you can do,” says Johnson. “We tried everything. I guarded him for a bit. Dan Majerle and Richard Dumas guarded him. We doubled-teamed him. We forced him left. We forced him right. It didn’t matter.”
The series returned to Phoenix for Game 6. Chicago stormed out of the gate, hitting 64 percent of their shots in the first quarter. By the start of the fourth, the Bulls were up by eight. And then the bottom fell out. “We’d played really well through three quarters. We had Phoenix searching for something. But that fourth quarter, outside of Michael, we just fell apart. The crowd’s [enthusiasm] rose, [Phoenix] started making plays and we started collapsing,” says Paxson. Chicago scored only 12 points in the final period. Nine of them were Jordan’s.
The last three belonged to John Paxson.
For a play that came together in the blink of an eye, Paxson makes it sound so simple. With 14.1 seconds left on the game clock, B.J. Armstrong took an inbounds pass from Jordan. “The play was designed to get Michael the ball in the open floor. We’re down by two, so he could drive and penetrate and either get fouled or make a bucket,” Paxson says.
But like most things in life, love and basketball, the play didn’t turn out as planned. “For obvious reasons, we did not want Jordan to beat us, so we doubled-teamed him up top to get the ball out of his hands,” recalls Johnson.
Jordan had to get rid of the ball. He looked for an open teammate. “The way the play was defended when Michael made his first pass up the floor and threw it to Scottie Pippen, Barkley took a little swipe at the ball,” says Paxson.
“Charles was out on Scottie and he overextended trying to make a spectacular play. That’s what made him great, taking risks,” adds West. “I can’t fault him. He carried us that far and who’s to say that you don’t try that when you’re the player that he is? You have to live and die with him.”
But Barkley had unwittingly set up his team for the fatal dagger. “When Barkley made that dive at the ball, everything changed. The play initially was designed to go to the right side of the floor. Michael was going to come off a screen from Pippen and get a hand-off,” Paxson remembers. “Horace Grant and I were on the left side. From there it just became reading the defense.”
As Pippen drove to the basket, West moved across the lane to prevent him from getting the easy layup. That left his man, Grant, wide open. Meanwhile, Johnson was unable to get over in time to provide defensive help on Paxson. “Danny Ainge, who had been guarding Paxson, had dropped off to put pressure on Grant. That little room was all Paxson needed,” KJ says.
“Horace somehow had the presence of mind to look over his right shoulder and kick it out to me. I was wide open from the three-point line,” says Paxson. The ball dropped with 3.9 seconds left, and KJ’s last-second desperation shot at the other end of the floor was blocked by Grant. Game over. Bulls three-peat.
“To be honest, my recollection of it in that moment isn’t very good. When you’re in that type of situation, you focus so much on what you want to do or where you’re supposed to be that I can’t remember catching the ball and shooting it,” says Paxson. “It happened so quick and it was such a reaction. I’ve seen it so many times [on TV] that that’s how I look at it now.”
Mark West has his own perspective on the final shot and the 1993 NBA Finals series. “It was kind of a Murphy’s Law situation—anything that could have gone wrong, went wrong, not just that last shot. That shot was like the cherry on top of the ice cream. We lost home games we shouldn’t have lost. We had a chance to win three in Chicago and dropped the one game. And then that shot...” West trails off. “That final shot was just a heartbreaker.”
But it was much more than that for Paxson. It went beyond playing spoilsport for the Suns and hero for the Bulls. It was about the unsung supermen of the League and the importance of the entire team, not just the franchise guy. It was about respect.
“My brother Jim was a much better basketball player than I was. He was an NBA All-Star, a great scorer in the League, and here I was, this bit player on a team. But Jim never got a chance to play in the NBA Finals, and I got to play [in them for] three straight years,” Paxson says.
“For me, it was a validation of belonging in the League and playing my part on a really good team. You’re out there for a reason. I didn’t just luck [out with] my position on the floor. I proved over the years that I belonged.”