Few athletes have the ability to take over a game with sheer talent and determination. Those divinely touched by the “Hoop Gods” are a small fraternity, but a familiar one to fans: Air Jordan, Wilt the Stilt, Larry Legend, Magic. Of course, one guy who’s been knocking on the door of this exclusive frat house for the last 10 years or so sports his own unique nickname. But Sir Charles, with his magical 56-point outburst in Game 3 of the first round of Western Conference Playoffs, would now have to be a full-fledged member.
Barkley’s 56 points tied the third-highest total in NBA Playoffs history, and added his name to several other playoff statistical categories, as well.
An amazing feat for a player who stands barely 6-5 and shows scars of hundreds of NBA battles. But, then again, he’s Charles.
“He was just incredible,” uttered the Warrior’s Chris Webber, the NBA’s Rookie of the Year and Barkley’s “role model” in a fictional Nike commercial. “He was taking bad shots and they were going in. He was taking double fadeaway shots and step-back three pointers. When he’s like that, you can triple-team him and it doesn’t mean anything.”
Well, that’s true. Just ask Warriors coach Don Nelson, who was steadfastly opposed to double-teaming Barkley during the three-game series.
Not a good idea, as teammate Danny Ainge said afterwards. “They challenged him. And the one thing I never do is challenge Charles Barkley.”
Nellie has been known to make bizarre strategy work in his favor, but even he may have underestimated Barkley’s offensive arsenal - or his affair with Lady Luck for that matter - as shot after shot continued to fall while the Warriors were targeting Kevin Johnson with double-teams.
“That (double-team) forces them to go one-on-one with Charles,” KJ said. “No way. Maybe David Robinson can single-cover him, but not Golden State.”
The brunt of the defensive assignment fell to Chris Gatling, Byron Houston and Webber. When the burly Houston muscled up to Barkley, the 31-year old superstar drove for layups. And when Houston played Barkley loose, jumpers rained. All three defenders were plagued by early foul trouble.
Barkley’s sparkplug energy, despite pain from a sore back, helped lift the Suns to a different level in Game 3. With every basket and every fist-pumping moment, the Suns fought to dissolve the memory of last season’s first round when they had to go into overtime in Game 5 to dismiss the Los Angeles Lakers.
Sweep, and go home. That was the motto, but the Suns may not have achieved it without Barkley’s amazing performance. Right from the start, and through the end, Sir Charles held court.
“It was one of the most spectacular games I’ve ever witnessed as a player or coach in a playoff situation,” said Nelson, who won ?? NBA titles as a player with the Boston Celtics.
Even Chris Mullin, the Warriors’ own offensive weapon, shook his fuzzy head when reflecting on the 56 points scored by Phoenix’s bald wonder.
“That was up there with a Michael Jordan game. It really was,” said Mullin, wiping sweat from his brow, smiling. “Every shot the guy threw up, went in. Amazing.”
On the night, Barkley made 23 of 31 field goals and was 3 of 4 from three-point land. The guy even added 14 rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block to his statline. Not a bad show, huh, coach?
“Chuck was pretty good tonight,” Suns coach Paul Westphal dead-panned. “A few special players have had performances like that in the playoffs. Michael Jordan has done things like that. I can never tell about Chuck. He always has that look.”
Barkley brought “the look” to Golden State, like a warrior brings his gauntlet to the arena. His 56 points showed his unmatched desire to win, fueled by a huge heart that beats within his chest.
Sacramento Kings coach Garry St. Jean, who was working as a television analyst during the game, captured the moment by saying, “It’s an extravaganza. Barkley is, Barkley is…I don’t even have an adjective.”
Don’t feel bad, Garry. Few do.