Three NBA championships in a row. The Minneapolis Lakers, the NBA's first dynasty, did it way back from 1952-54. The Boston Celtics, the NBA's greatest dynasty, did it (and then some) from 1959-66. But that was 27 years ago, and no team had done it since.
Until now. Until the 1991-93 Chicago Bulls -- Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.
"Ten years from now, when my kids are grown, I'll look back on winning three straight and I'll have a proud smile on my face," said Jordan. "I've gone through a lot this season, and to cap it off this way is great. This is the hardest thing that I've done in basketball."
Indeed, when John Paxson's 3-pointer found nothing but net at one end of the floor, and Horace Grant slapped away Kevin Johnson's last-second drive at the other, it ended 20 months of nearly nonstop basketball for Jordan that stretched back to October 1992, when the newly crowned NBA champion Chicago Bulls reported to training camp to prepare for their first title defense.
"This is a proving ground for me, and I've taken it as that -- a challenge," said Jordan in describing the 1993 NBA Playoffs. "As a competitor, you look for challenges in everything you do and every minute that you live. I'd be lying if I didn't say I enjoyed the challenges; I look forward to them every night."
"Michael wants to separate himself from the other elite superstars in the game," noted teammate Scott Williams, echoing comments made by many of the Bulls during the Finals. "And for him, I think the final chapter is a third ring."
That third ring finally was secured on June 20 in Phoenix's beautiful new America West Arena. Having grabbed a 3-2 lead in the Finals while nonetheless blowing a chance to close out the series at home, the Bulls had gone to Phoenix aiming to end it in six and not risk a winner-take-all Game 7. They led by 11 in the second quarter, by 10 in the third, and took an 87-79 edge into the final frame before they went ice cold, failing to score for the first 6:09 of the period as the frenzied crowd spurred the Suns' defense to new heights.
A free throw by Jordan at 5:51 ended the drought, but Phoenix kept on coming and drew ahead, 98-94, with 2:23 left. Each team missed, then the Suns missed three attempts at what might well have been the clincher. Jordan grabbed the rebound and went coast-to-coast to bring the Bulls to within two with 38.1 seconds left, giving him all nine of the Bulls' points in the quarter.
Phoenix squandered yet another opportunity to put the game away when Dan Majerle shot an airball from the right side and the 24-second clock expired, giving Chicago possession with 14.1 seconds to play. Later, Jackson recalled asking his team during the ensuing timeout, "Do you guys want to go for it? Do you want to go for the three?" But Paxson, who was to take and make the game-winner, said he "just stayed behind the line, in case something happened."
Jordan, double-teamed in the backcourt, fed the ball to Scottie Pippen, who drove the lane. Suns center Mark West moved over to block his path, so Pippen dished the ball to Grant in the low post. Grant, who had scored just one point in each of the previous two games but more than made up for it with tireless defense and hustle under the boards, eschewed a forced shot and instead passed the ball back out to Paxson, who was lurking in 3-point land. Phoenix's Danny Ainge, who had dropped back to harass Grant, could do nothing but watch as Paxson nailed the Bulls' Finals-record 10th trey of the game.
"Once Paxson got the ball," said Jordan, "I knew it was over."
"I got a clean look at it," said Paxson, who teamed with Jordan, B.J. Armstrong, and Trent Tucker to bury the Suns from long range. "There was no one around me, and it felt good when it left. I just caught the ball and shot it, as I have my whole life. I've been playing basketball since I was 8 years old, and I've shot like that in my driveway hundreds of thousands of times. It was just reaction."
The Suns had one last gasp as Johnson drove to the foul line area, but Grant moved in from the side and swatted his shot away. Before anyone could recover, the buzzer sounded and the Bulls had their three-peat.
"Tell me the truth -- did we just win three?" Pippen shouted over the popping of champagne corks in the chaotic Bulls locker room.
"I couldn't think of a more dramatic finish," said Jackson. "I've never seen a Finals game end like this in my years in the NBA."
It was a fitting finish to a fabulous Finals, and perhaps the most competitive and exciting postseason ever. Phoenix staved off elimination five times, including three in the first round and a seventh-game showdown with the Seattle SuperSonics in the Western Conference finals before finally succumbing. Chicago had to outduel the New York Knicks in a classic struggle of intense, hard-fought, defensive-minded basketball that left everyone drained -- and that was before the Finals had even started.
Jordan was a unanimous choice for his third consecutive NBA Finals MVP award, scoring 40 or more points in four straight games (no one had hit for over 40 in more than two consecutive games previously), including 55 in Game 4 to match the second highest Finals total ever, topped only by Elgin Baylor's 61 in 1962. Jordan joined Jerry West and Rick Barry as one of only three players ever to tally 30 or more in each game of a Finals series, and his average of 41 points per contest was the highest in Finals history.
"What can you say?" marveled Johnson, one of several Suns who had the task of shadowing Jordan at various times during the Finals. "He's the greatest player ever to play the game."
The Bulls stampeded out of the gate in Game 1, while the Suns appeared to have stage fright. Grant's 11 first-quarter points helped Chicago jump to a 34-20 lead after one period. The Bulls extended that margin to 20 points midway through the second quarter, then turned back repeated Suns comeback bids, the last of which was dashed by a 3-pointer from the left corner by Armstrong with 2:18 to play. Jordan tallied 14 of his game-high 31 points in the fourth quarter and Pippen continued his outstanding play of the New York series with 27 points as the Bulls won, 100-92.
The Suns played better in Game 2, but when the final buzzer sounded they found themselves in a trap from which no team has ever escaped -- down two games to none in an NBA Finals after losing the first two at home. "We're in a hole right now, and we're in the right state for big holes," noted Charles Barkley. "We'd fit right into the Grand Canyon."
Jordan poured in 42 points, Grant added a playoff career-high 24 points and Pippen played a brilliant all-around game as the Bulls outfought the Suns, 111-108. Chicago jumped in front by as many as 14 points in the first half but Phoenix, led by Barkley's 42 points and 13 rebounds, fought back and actually pulled in front, 91-89, early in the fourth quarter. But five straight points by Paxson put Chicago back in front for good, and then Pippen, who posted his third career playoff triple-double with 15 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists, blocked a three-point try by Ainge with 26.3 seconds left to thwart the Suns' final bid.
As the Bulls headed home, their confidence was at an all-time high after posting two wins in Phoenix. After all, if the Suns were the first team to lose the first two games of an NBA Finals at home, the Bulls were the first team to win the first two games of an NBA Finals on the road.
Nothing that took place in Games 1 and 2 could have prepared either team for what transpired in Game 3, a triple-overtime thriller that saw Phoenix squander a 99-88 lead in the final 7:33 of regulation. Chicago dominated the first two extra periods but failed to put the Suns away, and finally Phoenix reeled off nine consecutive points to grab control in the third overtime. Phoenix's 129-123 victory restored a measure of the Suns' confidence.
Johnson broke out of his slump in a big way, recording 25 points and nine assists while playing a Finals-record 62 of a possible 63 minutes. He also guarded Jordan for most of the night, one of several changes in defensive assignments made by coach Paul Westphal, who moved Majerle from Jordan to Pippen, put rookie forward Richard Dumas on the diminutive Armstrong, and took Barkley off Grant to ease his burden, letting him guard Bill Cartwright instead. Barkley, who bruised his right elbow in Game 2, had fluid drained from it and took anti-inflammatory medicine just before the start of Game 3 and turned in a gutsy 24-point, 19-rebound performance.
The Suns, the NBA's most prolific 3-point shooting team during the regular season, used the weapon effectively in Game 3. Majerle tied a Finals record by sinking six of the Suns' nine treys. Majerle's final 3-pointer came with 3:04 left in the third OT and started a decisive 9-0 run. Barkley followed with a dunk on a break and then stole an errant pass by Stacey King under the Phoenix basket and laid it in to make it 125-118 before Majerle closed out the run with two free throws with 1:09 left.
"This was the greatest basketball game I've ever played in," said Barkley. "We gave it everything and the Bulls can say they did the same."
By the end of the marathon, everyone was drained. It was like a pair of heavyweights at the end of a 12-rounder, both still standing and slugging away but neither possessing the quickness to put the other away.
The game matched the longest Finals game ever played, the triple-overtime thriller in which Boston edged Phoenix 128-126 in Game 5 on June 4, 1976. Westphal was a player with Phoenix in that game. Asked the difference between the two contests, he replied: "This time the good guys won."
After missing 24 shots in Game 3, Jordan came out with a vengeance in Game 4 and proved to be virtually unstoppable, nailing 21-of-37 from the field and 13-of-18 from the line in scoring 55 points as the Bulls beat the Suns 111-105.
"I consider this one of my greatest games," said Jordan, who took the ball aggressively to the basket at every opportunity. "Every big game, I try to play my best basketball. When we needed a big basket, I scored a big basket. That's just my role on this team -- whatever it takes. I decided in this game that I would try and carry the load. I was really nervous about doing it because I didn't want my teammates to have to stand around."
Despite Jordan's outpouring, the outcome was very much in doubt until the closing seconds, thanks in large part to Barkley's fourth career playoff triple-double (32 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists). The Bulls were up by eight with 3:33 to play before Phoenix closed the gap to 106-104 in the final minute, then regained possession of the ball with a chance to tie. But an inbounds pass from Ainge slipped through Johnson's hands and was recovered by Armstrong, and Jordan's fourth three-point play of the game iced it.
Though no team ever had come back from a 3-1 deficit to win an NBA Finals, the Suns remained hopeful.
"Anybody who knows anything about our team knows we'll be ready to play Friday night," declared Barkley. "We've got to win three games, they've got to win one. I like their chances, being up 3-1, but we're not going to give up."
Jordan had no plans of returning to Phoenix. "We're a game away from where we want to be, and we don't want to botch up this opportunity. We have to get it done on the court and then we can celebrate. We don't want to let this slip through our fingers."
But slip it did. The Bulls came out flat in Game 5, fell behind by as many as 16 points in the first quarter and tried unsuccessfully to play catch-up the rest of the night as the Suns posted a 108-98 victory. The Suns had come to Chicago needing to win two out of three to stay alive, and they did just that.
Although Jordan scored 41 and Pippen 22, Grant managed just one point in his first subpar game of the series and the Suns dominated the boards by a 45-35 margin, with Majerle's 12-rebound effort leading the way. The Bulls looked lackluster virtually all night long.
Although the road team had now won four of five Finals games, Westphal was looking forward to playing Game 6 -- and Game 7 -- in Phoenix. "I really believe if we're the best team, we should be able to win two games at home and prove it," said Westphal. "If we can't win two games at home, then we don't deserve to be world champions."
They couldn't even win one game at home, however. Jordan's 33 points led the Bulls to a stunning victory in Game 6. As a result, the Bulls had their three-peat and a place in history.
"There are a lot of opinions about who the greatest team is," Jordan said. "You look at the Boston Celtics, who won 16 championships (including eight in a row and 11 in 13 years) and they certainly have to be considered a great team."
But the three-peat, Jordan contended, puts the Bulls in the same category.
"It's something we set out to do, and it's something no one can ever take away from us," he said. "It's something for a team to win three in a row in this era, when there is so much talent in the league and so much parity. The other teams that won three in a row were in a different era. We feel we should be considered as one of the best teams of all time.
"Individually, my goal was to win three straight because it was something that Isiah [Thomas] never did, something Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird never did. I'm not saying I'm better than those guys and I'm not campaigning to be called the best ever, but it says something to me that I've been able to do that. And it's something that nobody can ever take away."