Jun 14 2013 11:25AM

Three for 3

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The biggest shot of his career, John Paxson's three-pointer sealed the
1993 NBA Championship and with it, Chicago's threepeat.

With one shot, the Chicago Bulls became the first team to threepeat in more than a quarter century.

It's been two decades since it happened and nearly as long since he last played in an NBA game, but the fan mail still piles up at 52-year-old John Paxson's Chicago office, with no signs of slowing.

On June 20, 1993, Paxson--then the starting point guard for the Chicago Bulls, now the team's VP of basketball operations--made one of the most memorable baskets in NBA history. With the Bulls trailing the Phoenix Suns 98-96 in Game 6 of the Finals, the veteran reserve caught a pass from teammate Horace Grant and drained a three-pointer from the left wing with 3.9 seconds left. Chicago held on for a 99-98 victory, clinching the Bulls' third straight NBA championship and the League's first "threepeat" since 1966.

"It's something that every kid dreams about; John Paxson got to live that dream."--Paul Westphal

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Heading into the series, all the attention was on the MVPs of the
past three seasons, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley.

These days, when Paxson reports to work in the Windy City, he still receives three or four pieces of mail per week specifically related to his '93 heroics. They're requests from longtime Bulls fans from around the world, asking Paxson to autograph a photo or a trading card of what came to be known simply as "The Shot."

"It happens pretty frequently," Paxson says of how often he's reminded of the moment. "We were just in Detroit [for a late-season game at the Pistons], and when I was standing against a railing in the tunnel watching the game, a fan mentioned it to me. It's nice that people remember, because it has been 20 years."

While "The Shot" still stands as the most iconic moment from an epic series between the Bulls and Suns, it's far from the only reason the classic showdown remains vivid in many fans' memories.

In 2012, when ESPN.com decided to rank the greatest NBA postseason series of all time, Bulls-Suns was 13th. Now keep in mind, ESPN's rundown wasn't merely a list of the best Finals of all time--the comprehensive survey considered every playoff series in league history, including first- and second-round matchups, along with Conference Finals.

Dating back to the NBA's inception in the late '40s, there have been more than 700 postseason series, as well as 400-plus series since 1984, when the format expanded to invite 16 teams to the postseason party each year. Among all of those win-or-go-home matchups, why does Bulls-Suns merit such lofty status?

"I've always given Horace a hard time...I've always kidded him that he wanted no part of that shot."--John Paxson

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
In addition to his big shot, Paxson (#5)
was a valuable all-around contributor off the bench.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
Barkley took home the season MVP from
Jordan that year, but Jordan was the Finals MVP.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The Bulls managed to keep the Suns' point guard
Kevin Johnson in check in the series.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
Scottie Pippen (#33) displayed his all-around
brilliance, averaging 21.2 points, 9.2 rebounds,
7.6 assists and 2 steals per game in the Finals.

Along with featuring one of the most unforgettable series-winners in history, the '93 battle was headlined by two of the greatest players of all time, both at the height of their powers. The 1992-93 campaign was the finest of Phoenix forward Charles Barkley's 16-year pro career, capped with his only Most Valuable Player award. Barkley wrested the MVP trophy away from Chicago guard Michael Jordan, who had won it the previous two years en route to leading the Bulls to back-to-back championships (Jordan was also voted MVP in 1988, '96 and '98).

Also consider the series' unique place in history. When Chicago clinched the crown with a tension-filled, edge-of-your-seat Game 6 victory, the Bulls became the first club to threepeat in 27 years. While the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics collected eight consecutive titles, in the ensuing generation no one had ever been crowned league champions more than two consecutive years. Not Magic Johnson's Lakers. Not Larry Bird's Celtics. Not Isiah Thomas' Pistons. In that regard, the vanquishing of the Suns was a Jordan accomplishment none of his contemporaries had ever achieved.

"It means a lot to us, because we made history," Jordan said on NBC's TV broadcast, amid a jubilant locker room. "Very few teams have done this. There's so much parity in the league right now, this is a major accomplishment for the team and the franchise. It's something I was looking forward to, to separate myself from Magic and Bird, because they never did it and I did. That makes me feel special."

If those aspects of the 1993 Finals weren't already enough to classify it as one of the most memorable ever, what took place earlier in the series in venerable Chicago Stadium and brand-new America West Arena ensured its all-time status. In can-you-top-this fashion, the six-game series seemed to ratchet up to higher and higher levels as it progressed. Over a gripping two-week span, just when you thought you'd witnessed something that would stand as the most indelible moment of the series, something else happened that was even more unforgettable.

How unique and singular was the '93 series from a historic perspective? It had a triple-overtime Game 3--tied for the longest-ever Finals game--the kind of thriller and "instant classic" that helped popularize ESPN Classic, which launched two years later. It had a 55-point explosion by Jordan in Game 4, the highest-scoring Finals game of Jordan's legendary career (he played in a total of 35 Finals games from 1991-98). It had the Finals' most prolific individual offensive performance, with Jordan averaging 41.0 points per game.

"What I don't think people talk about enough is the remarkable series Michael had," says Paxson, who retired from the NBA a year later in 1994. "When you put it into context of what people have done before and after that, it's just remarkable that a player could put up those kinds of numbers in an NBA Finals. Think about the pressure for a team's best player, especially with how much focus the other team is putting on specifically trying to stop you. It's still incredible to think about."

Yet 20 years later, the moment from Bulls-Suns that basketball aficionados most recall is Paxson's ultra-clutch, dagger trey in Game 6.

In a series full of surprises--for example, the road team won five of the six games, after the two teams went a combined 66-16 at home in the regular season--its finale appropriately was a riveting roller-coaster.

A week earlier, no one outside Planet Orange believed it was destined to be a long series. Phoenix dropped Games 1 and 2 at home by scores of 100-92 and 111-108, but was able to temporarily breathe life back into its hopes on the strength of a 129-121 triple-OT victory in Game 3. Jordan appeared to restore order from a Bulls perspective in Game 4, pouring in his 55 points and leading the Bulls to a 111-105 triumph and 3-1 series edge. With the city of Chicago poised to celebrate a historic threepeat, however, Phoenix stayed alive in Chicago Stadium with a 108-98 win in Game 5.

Which brings us back to the momentous Game 6. Despite those 2-0 and 3-1 series deficits vs. the Bulls, the Suns were no strangers to adversity in these playoffs. In the First Round, Phoenix needed to claw back from an 0-2 hole (first round series were best-of-five at the time) against the L.A. Lakers, and the Seattle SuperSonics gave the Suns everything they could handle with a full-tilt seven-game series in the Conference Finals. There was every indication the Suns would once again survive another game and force a Game 7.

Leading 98-94 in Game 6, with possession and just 1:04 remaining, the Suns would rue the final 64 seconds. A string of costly errors--some physical and some execution-related--would give the Bulls the opportunity to seize the championship. After moving the ball around the perimeter, reserve guard Frank Johnson missed a wide-open 18-footer from the right side, which Jordan rebounded with 45 seconds left. Without calling timeout, Jordan quickly dribbled the length of the floor through the unprepared and confused Phoenix defense, scoring an uncontested layup while burning only seven seconds, leaving the game clock with 38.1 seconds remaining.

On NBC's broadcast, Mike "The Czar of the Telestrator" Fratello almost seemed to know what was in store next for Phoenix, exclaiming: "That's the worst thing that could happen! [The Suns] let them score and [the Bulls] only used up a few precious seconds!"

The ensuing Suns possession unfolded in worst-case-scenario fashion. Phoenix dumped the ball into the low post to No. 1 option Barkley, who was guarded by Horace Grant, but he was double-teamed by Scottie Pippen, forcing him to pass. Johnson again had a wide-open 18-footer from the right wing, but this time passed it up, finding Dan Majerle in the right corner. Majerle ultimately was unable to draw a piece of the rim on a 15-footer from the right baseline, leading to a critical 24-second shot-clock violation. The airball allowed Chicago to call timeout and draw up a play, with still 14.1 ticks left.

To the surprise of absolutely no one on the planet, the Bulls got the ball to Jordan, who had scored all 9 of Chicago's points in the fourth quarter, but the greatest player of his era actually played only a small role in what would be the crowning moment. Jordan passed the ball ahead to longtime sidekick Pippen, who was being defended one-on-one by Barkley between the three-point arc and halfcourt line. Never known as a stellar defensive player, Barkley gambled for a steal and was out of position when Pippen received the Jordan pass, allowing Pippen to easily dribble past Barkley and into the paint. Three Suns converged on Pippen, forcing him to swing the ball to an open Grant on the left baseline. Despite appearing to have a clear path for a layup, Grant (who went 0-for-5 from the field in Game 6) instead turned back over his right shoulder and hot-potatoed a pinpoint pass to Paxson beyond the arc.

Coaches could not teach it any better: Paxson stepped right into the pass, catching the ball in perfect shooting motion. The shoulders and feet were square to the target, elbow at 90 degrees, the wrist strongly flicking the ball off the fingertips, the backspin rotation tight as the ball traveled its perfect parabola to the basket. If you had to nitpick, the worst thing about the shot is that is actually hit the back rim before going down.

"I've always [jokingly] given Horace a hard time, because he'd missed his previous nine shots or something like that," Paxson says today. "I've always kidded him that he wanted no part of that shot."

Phoenix had one desperate, final chance to win Game 6, but Kevin Johnson's off-balance shot was blocked by Grant, sealing the first of Chicago's two threepeats.

Making the final basket even sweeter for Paxson and his teammates was the sequence of events that led up to it, during a challenging 1992-93 season.

Paxson, the starter at point guard for the two previous Chicago title teams, missed 23 games due to injury in 1992-93. Combined with the emergence of fourth-year point guard B.J. Armstrong, Paxson lost his starting role, coming off the bench for the first time since 1988-89.

"Right after John made the shot, I literally immediately thought about how it symbolized everything that was great about our team," says Scott Williams, then a Chicago reserve forward and now an assistant coach for the D-League's Idaho Stampede. "It was so fitting that John would be the guy to make the game-winning shot, because he had been a starter for the first two championship teams, but then lost his starting spot because of injury. He handled it like a true professional. He was always so unselfish."

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images
The championship sealed the first threepeat of Jordan's career.
Jordan and head coach Phil Jackson would combine for
another trio of titles five years later.

For Jordan, too, a third straight Finals MVP reaffirmed his greatness and capped a decade-long transformation from amazing individual talent to consummate, ultra-successful team player.

Williams also believes it was apropos that even though the game-deciding possession was designed for Jordan to have the ball in his hands and create, he immediately passed ahead to Pippen, setting up the dominoes that led to Paxson's trey.

"That's one thing that was so very interesting about our team," says Williams, who coincidentally later had stints as both a Suns player and TV broadcast analyst. "Michael Jordan became the complete player, from a scoring champion year after year, to a well-rounded team player who was not afraid to give up the basketball. Everyone who was on the floor touched the ball on that final play."

For members of the Suns, it was a heartbreaking ending to a magical season, still the greatest in team history. Phoenix established a franchise record with 62 regular-season wins (later matched by the 2004-05 Suns) and reached the Finals for just the second time. In an acknowledgement of the special year the Suns enjoyed, the city of Phoenix hosted a downtown parade, even though the team had finished as a runner-up. According to the Arizona Republic, more than 300,000 appreciative fans attended, more than three times what was expected by Phoenix police.

"I told them they gave me everything they had," Phoenix head coach Paul Westphal said of his locker-room message to his players after the bitter loss. "They lost to a great team."

As he spoke to NBC sideline reporter Hannah Storm in front of a national audience, the dignified Westphal may have inadvertently summarized why "The Shot" that ended his team's season would still resonate with so many fans, even 20 years later.

"It's something that every kid dreams about," Westphal described of Paxson making a dramatic basket to win a championship for his team. "John Paxson got to live that dream."

This story was originally published from the 2013 Official NBA Finals Program