Going the Distance
Published: July, 1993
1993 NBA Playoffs: Western Conference Finals
Seattle was the last hurdle before the NBA Finals. All the Suns had worked for this season was a shot at the trophy – the NBA Championship trophy. But not without a fight said the athletic, talent-rich Sonics, headed by their mercurial coach George Karl.
Phoenix’s methodical series wins over the Lakers and Spurs whet its appetite for a run-n-gun series that had just finished battling the Houston Rockets. Like a shark in bloody water, Phoenix attacked its pretty with speed and strength. But, like all good teams do, the Sonics responded with a biting ferocity that set the stage for things to come.
Game 1 was Phoenix’s bait. They won 105-91 as surprise starter Cedric Ceballos scored 21 points and Phoenix’s defense blocked a club playoff-record 16 shots – second-most all-time in an NBA playoff game – and forced 18 turnovers. Vets Danny Ainge (three three’s in the second quarter) and Frank Johnson (eight points and superb defense) each performed well. Could the Suns make the NBA Finals so easily?
The Sonics came back like champs in Game 2 winning 103-99 thanks to Sam Perkins’ three-pointer with 9.8 seconds left, Ricky Pierce’s 34 points and Phoenix’s 15 missed free throws. Pierce hit jumper after jumper, sending Phoenix back to the chalkboard for defensive adjustments after Seattle battled back from 10 down on the fourth.
Fitting, perhaps, that on the night Barkley was crowned the 1993 NBA Most Valuable Player, Phoenix’s chances for a 2-0 lead were drowned out by the piercing sound of a ref’s whistle. Barkley put back a rebound with 1.7 seconds left but was called for loose ball foul.
And it was off to the “Land of Salmon and Rain” for the Suns who were searching for their trademark crunch-time effort.
Games 3 and 4 were like Jekyll and Hyde. The Sonics had barley shaken off the warm-ups when Phoenix charged back to regain homecourt advantage with a 104-97 win. Six Suns scored in double figures as Frank Johnson scored seven of his 12 points during a 12-0 fourth quarter spree and Barkley pulled down 16 boards to negate Pierce’s 28 points.
Phoenix’s subs scored 45 points, prompting KJ to say, “We took their depth as a challenge, and, obviously, we got good play from our bench.”
But the tides turned as Seattle shot a series-high 54 percent and claimed 21 offensive boards en route to a 120-101 Game Four win. The Suns lacked intensity throughout the game and headed back to the Valley.
In perhaps the best contest of the series, Phoenix won Game 5 120-114 behind Barkley’s triple –double of 43 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists plus Thunder Dan’s 34 points – including an NBA playoff record eight three’s. Shawn kemp and Pierce had combined for 60 points to challenge the Suns.
Phoenix led most of the way, but it was a three-point margin before Majerle hit his last trey. “If Majerle misses that three, it might be a different ball game,” Karl theorized after the dust settled. “You don’t like to get beat by threes, but he was making them in a zone.”
Pressure, pressure. The Suns wanted to end Seattle’s season in Game 6 back up in the Pacific Northwest, but instead were ambushed 118-102 as Pierce tallied 27 and the Sonics’ defense forced Barkley and Majerle into an 8-for-25 night. Ceballos’ playoffs ended with a foot injury in the third quarter.
Questions circled, answers were few. But just like they did throughout the season, the Suns recaptured their winning spirit just as fans thought all was lost. The Suns would use their homecourt advantage to catapult themselves into the NBA Finals.
Phoenix’s 123-110 Game Seven win was full of colorful moments as Sir Charles rekindled some of that ’76 spirit when Westy, Heard and Oklahoma Kid roamed the hardwood.
Barkley silenced the nay Sayers with career playoff highs of 44 points and 24 rebounds. The whistles helped their cause, too. Phoenix tied an NBA playoff record with 57 free throws in 64 attempts – 15-of-15 in the fourth quarter. Memories of triumphs past burned like fire in Tom Chambers’ eyes as he started and scored 17 points against his former team.
Yesteryear seemed so near.
“Bring on ‘Da Bulls!’” chanted 19,023 excited fans that rocked the Arena from buzzer to buzzer. Yes, the Suns reached their goal after a long, long journey through three cities.