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Bulls Do It Again

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By Alex Sachare, HOOP Magazine

IT WAS THERE FOR THE BULLS ALL SEASON LONG, the carrot at the end of the stick that was seemingly interminable 1992-93 season. It was their reason for taking all those trips to the airport and putting up with early wake-up calls, cold room-service meals and long bus rides when they'd rather be home with their families.

A place in history. Something that had only been done twice before, and never in their generation. Not by Larry's Celtics, or Magic's Lakers, or Isiah's Pistons, or Dr. J's Sixers. A chance to make their mark, for now and forever.

Three-peat. Three NBA World Championships in a row. The Minneapolis Lakers, the NBA's first dynasty, did it way back in 1952-54. The Boston Celtics, the NBA's greatest dynasty, did it (and then some) in 1959-66. That was 27 years ago, and no one had done it since.

Till now. Till the Chicago Bulls, 1991-93. Till 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 I've done in basketball.''

Indeed, when John Paxson's three-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 non-stop basketball for Jordan that stretched all the way back to October 1992, when the newly crowned NBA champion Chicago Bulls reported to training camp to prepare for their first title defense. Seven weeks of Dream Team basketball, culminating in Olympic gold in Barcelona, took a big chunk out of Michael's summer and made the 1992-93 regular season seem to drag on and on. But with crafty Phil Jackson pushing all the right psychological buttons along the way, Jordan found the incentive he needed for the three-peat.

``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.''

For Jordan, the ultimate competitor, the challenge of doing something Bird, Johnson, Thomas, Erving and so many others had been unable to do was all the incentive he needed. He knew that the 1993 NBA Playoffs represented a unique opportunity, one that may not have come his way again.

``This is a chance for me to accomplish something that they haven't. I wanted to do something that set myself apart from them, and this does it. They were never able to win three in a row. Magic has five rings, but I still accomplished something team-wise that he was never able to do. Yes, it has been a driving force for me.'' This was not lost on his teammates.

``Michael wants to separate himself from the other elite superstars of the game,'' noted 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.''

Mike is happy

Michael savors a moment in the sun with the Bulls' 3rd NBA Championship trophy.

That third ring finally was secured on June 20 in Phoenix's beautiful new America West Arena. Having grabbed a 3-1 lead in the Finals but blown 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 during the third quarter 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 have been the clincher. Jordan grabbed the rebound and went coast-to-coast uncontested to bring the Bulls within two with 38.1 seconds left and 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 air ball 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 time-out, ``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.''

Whatever the case, all's well that end's well, as the literate Jackson might quote.

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 scored just one point in each of the last 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, lurking in three-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 three-pointer 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 eight years old, and I've shot like that in my driveway hundreds of thousands of times. It was just a reaction.''

Suns coach Paul Westphal, a pretty fair shooter in his playing days, could do nothing but stare - and smile. ``It seemed like the ball was in the air for about an hour,'' he said. ``I just had to smile to myself. Everything we had worked for all year depended on that shot. Everyone in the gym was just watching it, hoping. It's a shot every kid dreams about. John Paxson got to live that dream out.''

The Suns had one last gasp as Kevin 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.

``I couldn't think of a more dramatic finish,'' Jackson said. ``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 NBA playoffs ever. Phoenix staved off elimination five times, including three in the First Round and a seventh-game showdown with Seattle, before finally succumbing. Chicago had to outduel New York in a classic struggle of intense, hard-fought, defensive-minded basketball that left everyone drained - and that was before the Finals even began.

Michael Jordan vs. Marjerle

Jordan won his third consecutive Finals MVP by scoring 40 + in four straight games.

Jordan was a unanimous choice for his third consecutive Finals MVP award, sponsored by Jeep/Eagle, scoring 40 or more points in four straight games - nobody had ever had more than two in a row - including 55 in Game 4 to match the second-highest Finals total ever, topped only by Elgin Baylor's 61 in 1962. Jordan became only the third player, with Jerry West and Rick Barry, to tally 30 or more in each game of a Finals series, and his 41 ppg average was the highest in Finals history.

``I don't even think Michael can stop Michael,'' said Westphal. ``All you can do is make Michael work for his shots. I'm as much in awe of Michael Jordan as anyone else. He's the best offensive point guard and defensive point guard of all time, the best offensive and defensive two guard, the best offensive and defensive small forward - and he's probably right up there in the top five at power forward and center.''

Phoenix's Charles Barkley, who fought relentlessly during the Finals despite an aching elbow injured in Game 2, spoke of Jordan's determination and his will to win.

``He's the only person I've ever met in life as competitive as I am,'' said Barkley. ``No matter what we play - cards, golf, basketball - we just hate to lose.''

Jordan's attitude spread to his teammates. Said veteran Bulls center Bill Cartwright, ``Being here (in the Finals) might have been fun for them (the Suns), but not us. Winning is the only fun we know.''

The Bulls stampeded out of the gate in Game 1, while the Suns, making their Finals debut, 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 three-pointer from the left corner by Armstrong - is there a better shooter from the deep corner in all of basketball? - 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.

``We stunned them with our movement and execution offensively, and then we were able to hold them off at the end,'' Jordan said. ``We maintained our poise. That's part of the maturity of our team, especially on the road. We don't lose our composure, and we do the right things down the stretch.''

``We're confident we can win it, or else we wouldn't be here. We're about to make history, and this was a step in the right direction. It's all about making history now.''

The Suns played better in Game 2, but when the final buzzer sounded, they found themselves in a trap from which no team had ever escaped - down 0-2 in an NBA Finals after losing the first two games at home.

``We're in a hole right now, and we're in the right state for big holes,'' noted 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 out-fought 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 ahead 91-89 early in the fourth quarter. But five straight points by Paxson put the Bulls 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.

``We're just rolling right along, '' said Armstrong, whose pesky defense was a major factor in KJ's disappointing play.

``Our execution has been great. We've been able to get all the types of shots we need,'' said Jordan, who added 12 rebounds and nine assists in Game 2 to barely miss his third career Playoff triple-double. ``When we're able to get involved and get all guys working on the same page, we're a very, very potent basketball team.''

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 of the third OT. Phoenix's 129-123 victory restored a measure of the Suns' confidence.

Johnson broke out of his slump in a big way, getting 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 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 Cartwright instead. Barkley, who bruised his right elbow in Game 2, had fluid drained 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 three-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 tied a Finals record by sinking six of the Suns' nine treys. Majerle's final three-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 have ever been involved with,'' 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, the Suns' coach, was a player with Phoenix in that game. Asked the difference between the two, 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 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 11-105.

``I consider this one of my greatest games,'' said Jordan, who aggressively took the ball to the basket at every opportunity. ``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.''

To that, Armstrong said, ``Hey, when he's in a groove, you've got to let him be in the groove.''

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 has come back from a 3-1 deficit to win an NBA Finals, the Suns remained hopeful.

``Anyone who knows anything about our team, knows we will 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 are not going to give up.''

They didn't. 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 of three to stay alive, and they did just that.

For two days prior to Game 5, the Suns kept hearing and reading about how the city was making preparations to cope with possible outbreaks of violence in the celebration after the Bulls' series-ending victory. They used it as incentive, the words ``Save the City'' finding their way onto the bulletin board in the Phoenix lockerroom before the game. ``We don't want anything to happen to the city of Chicago, that's why we've got to win tonight,'' Barkley said mischievously.

Not to worry. 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, Majerle leading the way with 12 rebounds. The Bulls simply looked flat virtually all night long.

``Sometimes the desire heart and energy are there, but the body and mind don't act as one,'' said Jordan.

Although the road team had won four of five Finals games, Westphal was looking forward to playing Game 6 - and Game 7 - in Phoenix.

``I really believe if we are the best team, we should be able to win two games at home and prove it,'' Westphal said. ``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 leading the Bulls to their stunning victory in Game 6. As a result, the Bulls had their three-peat, and a place in history.

While the debate continues as to just what that place is, for Jordan, there is no question.

``There are a lot of opinions about who the greatest team is,'' said Jordan. ``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 a considered great team.'' But the three-peat, contends Jordan, puts the Bulls in the same category.

``It's something we set out to do, and it is 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 is something Isaiah never did, something Magic and 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 its something that nobody can ever take away.''

This article originally appeared in the Fall 1993 issue of Hoop.

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