Danny Ainge On '93
Danny Ainge was always the player fans loved to hate if he was on the opposing team. Phoenix fans got to root for him, though, when he signed with the Suns in July of 1992 and became an integral part of the Suns' 1993 playoff drive. Ainge averaged 8.1 points in 24.6 minutes of playing time in the postseason during his first year in Phoenix.
Recently announced as the new Director of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics, the former Suns guard and head coach took time out of his hectic schedule to talk with Suns.com and remember that wild ride that was the 1993 playoffs.
Suns.com: How hard is it to believe it’s already been 10 years since the 1993 playoffs?
Danny Ainge: It doesn’t even seem like four or five years ago. It’s just gone by really fast.
Suns.com: With the opening of the America West Arena, new uniforms, a new coach and the arrival of Charles Barkley and yourself, what were the expectations heading into the regular season?
Ainge: The excitement was high. I think that team had great experience and talent. The Kevin Johnson/Charles Barkley combo, Dan Majerle... I just think that that team had real high hopes entering the season.
Suns.com: Some of the players that had been here a while going into that season had to make some adjustments to the new personnel that was brought in. How quickly did that team gel and form the chemistry needed to succeed?
Ainge: It was great because Barkley was in such great shape after playing in the Olympics. I thought that was probably the best year of his career. Everybody else on that team was a professional and we just had a group of good guys that knew how to play, and a coach that gave us good direction that was offensively a spectacular coach. He had a great mind and I thought that (Paul) Westphal did as good a job as anybody could at utilizing all the players and dealing with all the strong personalities that he managed.
Suns.com: What was the feeling in the locker room after dropping the first two games to the Lakers in the opening round?
Ainge: We just had a major letdown for whatever reason. Maybe we didn’t respect that Laker team. They weren’t a very good team in the regular season. I think it’s hard in this league when you’re expected to win and to have teams that are playing with absolutely nothing to lose, and I think that’s what happened. The Lakers were just playing fantastic. They had the great tradition and it took us digging deep. I don’t think going into the series that everybody had the right mindset.
Suns.com: What was your reaction to Westphal’s proclamation that you would win the next two in L.A. and come home to wrap the series up in Phoenix?
Ainge: We believed it. We believed we were definitely better. There was never a time when we did not think we were a better basketball team than them. I just think that we felt that we were not playing up to our capabilities. I remember we were down at halftime in Game 3 and Westphal came in and was telling jokes. We had a little joke fest and I thought that was very unique, and yet it fit in with Paul and his temperament. What is he going to do? Go scream and yell at us? We all know that we’re not playing well. We all know what's at stake. We were at halftime of Game 3, (on the verge of) being eliminated and we’re behind. He just thought we were playing too tight and that the expectations were too high, and we weren’t responding. He did everything he could to loosen us up. I don’t remember any of the jokes, I just remember that he told us jokes and I thought that was pretty funny.
Suns.com: What do you remember about Game 5 against the Lakers?
Ainge: That was just a great, intense game. The Lakers just showed their tradition and the great champions they were. We had a significantly better team and they took us all the way on the hill.
Suns.com: What were your memories of the San Antonio series, up until and including Barkley’s shot to win it?
Ainge: That’s what I remember most about that series. Charles one-on-one at the top of the key, knocking down the jumper. I don’t remember a lot of details about that series. I thought Charles would try to drive it more, shoot his little patented fadeaway, but we pretty much knew Charles would take the shot. We isolated him at the (top) which is much more difficult with the shooters in the corners. It was much more difficult to be double-teamed from that spot.
Suns.com: Then it was on to Seattle for the Western Conference Finals and a tough seven-game series to advance to the Finals.
Ainge: That was a good series. Seattle was a very good basketball team. I remember Charles just playing dominant basketball. I especially remember him in Game 7 when he had an incredible game. He was just a man among children in that game. We just rode his back.
Suns.com: Do you remember Charles' announcement that he would produce 40 points and 20 rebounds in Game 7?
Ainge: I don’t remember that, but he probably said that every night (laughs).
Suns.com: How gratifying was it to see Tom Chambers start Game 7 against his former Sonics team and help the Suns advance to the NBA Finals after giving so many years of service to the team?
Ainge: I do remember him starting that game and I remember him playing well. I don’t remember the numbers he had that game, but I don’t think anybody on our team lacked any confidence in him. I think everybody knew he could still play. He had been there before and should have been fresh, not having played a lot of minutes up to that time. Nobody was surprised with Tom’s performance.
Suns.com: What did you think of the way Chambers handled his reduced role with the arrival of Barkley during that season?
Ainge: Tom was an excellent teammate. He knew that Charles was the star of the team and he had to try to fit in and play differently, play some center. Tom adjusted to that and was a big contributor to the team with his ttitude, effort and like we said, Game 7 vs. Seattle.
Suns.com: What was it like around town as you guys headed into the Finals, with Suns paraphernalia on every corner, every car?
Ainge: It was like that all year. There was just so much enthusiasm and hype around that team. With all the new things, it was fantastic to be a part of and there was just so much enthusiasm. A lot of it was the new arena, with Charles Barkley, with Paul Westphal. I had a chance to play on some great teams in Boston and it was very much like playing in the Celtics championship years where the whole city was just psyched about the team.
Suns.com: Did you feel that having played the Bulls in the Finals the year before with Portland gave you any advantage heading into the 1993 Finals?
Ainge: I felt we could beat them. I knew that they were a great basketball team and had been through the wars together, and that was one advantage they had. But I thought our advantage of Charles was an advantage that could counter the Michael advantage. I think that losing the games at home killed us. We battled back, but losing those games at home were torture.
Suns.com: What was it like to hear some fans boo Kevin Johnson after Game 2 of the Finals?
Ainge: I actually don’t remember KJ being booed. I remember hearing boos, but I don’t remember it being specifically at KJ. I remember our team kind of being booed for losing two games at home. If that is the case, that is pretty sad. KJ certainly wasn’t the reason why we were 0-2. Horace Grant came out and torched us in the first two games. That was ridiculous.
Suns.com: How many minutes did you play in the triple-overtime thriller and what are your memories of that game?
Ainge: I don’t remember how many minutes I played, but I remember having a chance to win it in regulation or one of the overtimes with a (good) look. But I remember that was an exciting game, a lot going on. I remember KJ playing really well.
Suns.com: After taking two of three in Chicago, what was the mood in the locker room heading into Game 6?
Ainge: I think that we were feeling pretty good. We knew that we had to play great basketball. I remember thinking that we had to score, more than stopping the Bulls in that series. That’s kind of what I felt like with the Portland Trail Blazers, as well. We had to score points. They were great because they had a great defensive team. Obviously they had the best offensive player in the game, but they were an excellent defensive team. We really struggled scoring against Chicago. In all the games we had serious scoring droughts at the end of games, in fourth quarters, and that killed us in that whole series.
Suns.com: How much of that was their defensive presence as opposed to you guys just not being able to score?
Ainge: I think it was both. We had open opportunities. I remember in Game 6, obviously, the nightmare shot that (John) Paxson hit over us. But I remember it seemed like 10, 15 possessions where we had open shots and we just couldn’t make shots. Guys were shooting air balls. We were getting quality looks and we couldn’t make baskets, and that was really really frustrating at that point. It was the whole team, we just could not score. If we could have just kept putting pressure on them with our offense there would have never been a last second opportunity. That was our game and I felt that our offense in every game it seemed like had a tough time scoring against the great Bulls defense in the fourth quarter of games. I’m sure there are statistics to back that up, but I just remember that being the case.
Suns.com: Do you recall a scuffle with Jordan in Game 5 where you went nose to nose?
Ainge: To me, that didn’t mean anything. I have a great deal of respect for Michael. Michael and I were pretty close. We played golf together in the summers. We were just jawing back and forth, just talking some smack.
Suns.com: Take us through the Paxson three. You started to go defend Grant as he kicked it back out to Paxson. How much of that was simply instinct?
Ainge: What happened was, coming out we didn’t want to give up a three, obviously, and my assignment was Paxson. Charles went for the steal on Scottie (Pippen) out at about the hash mark. As he went for the steal, Pippen went driving down the middle of the lane. I saw Pippen driving and I didn’t want to let him just kick it to Paxson, but as I saw him kick it to Grant, I thought I could get to Grant and foul him before he got an easy dunk. And Grant just kicked it out and I went, “Oh, no, what was I thinking?” But yeah, it was just a completely instinctive play that caused me lots of pain. Lots and lots of pain.
Suns.com: How many times have you seen that shot on video in the last 10 years?
Ainge: I watched the game a year or two ago on ESPN Classic. I didn’t watch the whole game, just the last few minutes of the game, and, oh man, it made me sick all over again.
Suns.com: What were your expectations the day of the big parade and what was that day like for you?
Ainge: I guess because I had played on championship teams I didn’t think we should have a Western Conference Championship parade. But at the same time the city was so supportive and it was so special a year. As I reflect back on that, my opinion was ridiculous because we lost the last game of the year, it was a close game, but it shouldn’t take away from the excitement of the year. Every day was fun on that team. We had a great coach, we had great players, we had good chemistry, we had great fan support. There was so much enthusiasm going around. As painful as it was to lose, that team did deserve to be celebrated with the whole city. It was a great partnership with the fans and the team that year.
Suns.com: Where do see the legacy of that year and playoff drive fitting into the history of the team?
Ainge: I think that has to be as exciting a season as the Suns have had in their history. There’s probably some players that played there before in the ’76 Finals that would probably have some debate over that. I played on two championship teams in Boston in ’84 and ’86, and there was a lot of excitement there. I would say that even though we lost that game, that year was as exciting a time as I’ve ever had playing basketball.