Paxson an unlikely hero as Bulls claimed three-peat
Twenty years after he hit a series-clinching three-pointer in the 1993 NBA Finals that lifted the Chicago Bulls to their third straight championship
Remind Me Later •
All eyes were on Michael Jordan as he prepared to inbound the ball with 14.4 seconds remaining in regulation of the 1993 NBA Finals' Game 6.
Chicago led 3-2 in the series, but the Bulls had missed out on a chance to clinch at home the game before. The Suns, buoyed by their return to Phoenix for the final two games, were clinging to a two-point lead, 98-96, with an opportunity to force Game 7. They had a chance to extend the lead the prior possession, but Dan Majerle's shot failed to draw rim, Scottie Pippen grabbed the ball, and Chicago called timeout.
Rather than advance the ball, Bulls coach Phil Jackson elected to have Jordan, who had scored all of his team's nine points that quarter, take the ball out of bounds in front of their own bench. The idea was to open up the floor and give Jordan more than enough operating space.
Jordan had been on a tear that series, on his way to averaging 41.0 points in the six games and setting an NBA Finals record. He was an obvious option to take the last shot, as well Pippen, who had recorded 23 points and 12 rebounds in the game.
Horace Grant was a capable scorer as well, but he has struggled mightily that night, having scored only a single point and missing all five of his shot attempts from the field. B.J. Armstrong and John Paxson, who had 18 and five points, respectively, rounded out Chicago's lineup.
The season had been a challenging one for Paxson, who underwent knee surgery the previous offseason and again in February. Paxson had also relinquished his starting job to Armstrong, a decision made by Jackson, but the right one, Paxson acknowledges.
"I felt fortunate to be in the game to be honest with you," said Paxson recently. "Personally, I had a tough year. At that time, you had to name your playoff roster before the playoffs. You couldn't go game to game like we do now. I remember at the beginning of the playoffs, I was thankful to be on the roster given my injuries and everything else."
Yet there was Paxson, on the game's biggest stage in the deciding moments of a crucial game.
On the inbounds play, Jordan fed the ball to Armstrong, who promptly returned it. Jordan quickly pushed the ball across halfcourt and found Pippen, who flashed to the top of the key, an action known as the "blind pig." Pippen turned and drove to the basket, but the Phoenix defense collapsed and he sent the ball in Grant's direction as he slashed towards the basket from the baseline. In one fluid motion, Grant turned to his right and kicked the ball out to Paxson, waiting behind the three-point line in solitary. As the clock continued to count down – six… five… four… – Paxson caught the ball, lined up, and calmly drilled the biggest shot of his life.
"All five players on that possession touched the ball," recalled Paxson. "It was a nice reminder of what we try to be about, playing together as a team and hitting the open man."
Chicago took a 99-98 lead with 3.9 seconds remaining, one which was preserved when on the ensuing possession, Grant blocked Kevin Johnson's last-second attempt. The Bulls had become just the third team in NBA history to three-peat and the first to do so in 27 years.
And it was Paxson, nearly the forgotten man that season, who came through when his team needed him the most 20 years ago today.
"I think as a player you're always ready," said Paxson, whose 3 was Chicago's tenth of the game. "If you're on the floor, you better be ready. You aren't going to go run and hide. To be on the floor in key situations in the game, I think again it was the fact that I had been there before, the trust factor. Do you have time to think about it? You better be ready or else you shouldn't be out there."
After two long, grueling championship seasons, it wasn't easy for Paxson and the Bulls to be ready. Jordan and Pippen went straight from the previous Finals to join the Dream Team that captured gold in the Barcelona Summer Olympics. Aside from Paxson, starting center Bill Cartwright also had knee surgery in the offseason. So Jackson allowed the team to ease into the year, knowing that the goal was to win another championship, but employing a realistic outlook with how to approach the regular season.
The Bulls won 57 games that season, the lowest number of victories of the six championship years, and didn't even claim the top seed in the Eastern Conference. But the team was healthy as it entered the postseason and it quickly took care of business with sweeps of the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers in the first two rounds.
Chicago's swagger was in full force as it prepared for what would be a difficult Eastern Conference Finals against Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks, who held home-court advantage.
"We were always confident," said Paxson. "We had just won two championships and we had a great belief in ourselves and our coach. We understood that we didn't have the best record, so we would have to win on the road in order to get back to where we wanted to be."
Doing so in New York proved difficult, as the Knicks promptly won the first two games of the series.
"That was the first time in any playoff series in those three years that we got punched in the mouth like that," recalled Paxson. "It was such a physical brand of basketball and they really took it to us. The Knicks felt kind of like we used to feel with Detroit. If they could ever get home-court advantage and play us, they would have the upper hand. We were able to do that with Detroit, which was important.
"For them to win those first two games, I know they felt like they were in control," Paxson continued. "But Phil's greatness as a coach was how he never panicked. He never, at least outwardly, made us feel like we were in a bad position or there was pressure."
The Bulls responded as the series shifted to the Chicago Stadium, winning Game 3 by a comfortable 20-point margin. And the next time out, Jordan willed Chicago to another victory, shooting 18 of 30 from the field and 12 of 14 from the free-throw line en route to 54 points and a 2-2 tie in the series.
It set up a pivotal Game 5 in which the urgency to record a win in New York had never been greater. And while Jordan was spectacular with a triple-double of 29 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds, it was a series of defensive plays that won the game when a combination of Pippen, Grant, and Jordan surrounded Knicks forward Charles Smith under the basket and denied multiple attempts that would have put New York up as the clock wound down.
It was a reminder that as much talent as the Bulls possessed on the offensive end of the floor, they were equally superb defensively.
"We always felt that there came a time in a series that you could squeeze a team and impose your will on them," said Paxson. "The Knicks were a real confident group; they had a bunch of professionals on that team that were very good players. But that last part of that game and that one sequence kind of epitomized how we were able to impose our will on them and not give them life.
"I can still remember how quiet that building was when the buzzer went off and we had won," added Paxson. "We took the lead and were going back home. Their fans, the players, you could tell they were in a bad spot and they knew it."
In Game 6, Chicago applied the knockout punch to New York with a 96-88 victory to take the series 4-2. A much different style of play awaited in the next round as the Bulls made their way to Phoenix to take on the Suns, owners of the NBA's best record that season and the league's MVP, Charles Barkley.
"The good part of that was that we had just come off a series that was physical and grinding and Phoenix was an offensive team, not a defensive team," said Paxson. "We knew offensively we would have the freedom to play the way we wanted to play."
Chicago did just that as the series got underway, winning the first two games in Phoenix. But the Suns were eager to return the favor in Game 3 on the Bulls' home court. And after three overtimes, it was Phoenix who outlasted Chicago, 129-121. Despite the loss, Paxson still looks back on that night with a sense of awe.
"It was one of the greatest games to be a part of," said Paxson. "The thing that I recall was the fatigue of a lot of the guys. Scottie that game had cramps and he was on the floor. Guys played as hard as they possibly could. We had to give Phoenix a lot credit because we handled them pretty well in the first two games in their building. For them to come and not be intimidated or discouraged, both Paul Westphal and Charles Barkley had a lot to do with that. They were very positive, upbeat people. They didn't get discouraged or get down. It was a great game with all of the big shots and big plays that were made."
The numbers are staggering—Jordan scored 44 points in 57 minutes, while Pippen added 29 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in 56 minutes. Armstrong played a team-high 58 minutes and chipped in with 21 points. It was simply a matter of the Suns outlasting the Bulls.
Aside from the epic Game 3 and of course his series-clinching shot in Game 6, it's Jordan's scoring barrage that sticks out in Paxson's mind. Jordan scored 55 in Game 4 as the Bulls took control of the series with a 3-1 lead.
"When you think about stage and what is at stake, for him to put up those kinds of numbers is still amazing to me," said Paxson of Jordan, who averaged 45.5 points over a four-game stretch. "It's going to take some special guy to ever do that in a Finals again. That was an earmark, but that was typical Michael, the way he always was."
Despite 41 from Jordan in Game 5, Chicago couldn't close out the series at home. But Jordan was supremely confident, adamant his team would need only one more game and greeting those on the plane with, "Hello, world champions!" as they made their way back to Phoenix for Game 6.
"Michael set the tone," said Paxson. "He didn't want us thinking we weren't going in there and winning the game."
Though the Suns in Game 6 held a 98-94 advantage late in the final quarter, the ball fatefully wound up in Paxson's hands and the three-peat celebration was put into motion.
"I think you have to understand that over a time when you win championships together, there is a lot of trust that is built up," said Paxson. "As great as Michael was and as much as he always wanted the ball in his hands, to make that final play showed his trust in all of us. At the end of the day, the ball ended up in my hands. But if Horace had taken that ball strong to the basket, who knows what would have happened? If the ball had been to the right side of the floor and B. J. was in that corner… That is the way Phil had preached playing from the day he got the job. Ultimately, it worked again."
For Paxson, after the injuries, the new role off the bench and all of the other challenges that season presented, hitting the iconic shot wasn't an issue of redemption or validation.
"It was the satisfaction of knowing you came through for your team," said Paxson. "The fact that over those years, if you go back before even the '91 Finals, we had to grow together and we took our lumps along the way. It is being able to know Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Bill Cartwright, B.J. Armstrong, Horace Grant, and all of those guys have trust in you and believe in you. To win a third was incredible."