Suns Road to 1993 NBA Finals: Clinching the Western Conference Title

Michael Jordan Charles Barkley

For the third time in the 1993 NBA Playoffs, the Phoenix Suns were tied 2-2 going into Game 5 after alternating wins with the SuperSonics through the Western Conference Finals’ first four games. Following a lackluster second half in Game 4, the Suns looked to increase their intensity for the crucial Game 5. Fortunately for the Suns, their two All-Star selections from that season combined for one of the greatest two-man performances in postseason history. 

Western Conference Finals Game 5 vs Seattle. Tuesday, June 1, 1993

Earlier in the day, Jerry Colangelo was named NBA Executive of the Year for the fourth time, which still remains the most in league history, and the Suns needed to pull off the win that night to take the advantage and keep their Finals hopes alive.

Fortunately for them, Charles Barkley and Dan Majerle came locked and loaded as the two dominated their way to a victory in Game 5 against the SuperSonics.

After being named the NBA Most Valuable Player the week prior, Barkley displayed why he deserved the prestigious honor with a monster triple-double. He scored what was then a Suns playoff record with 43 points to go along with 15 rebounds and 10 assists.

Barkley became just the third player in NBA history to record a 40-point triple-double in the playoffs, joining Oscar Robertson (twice) and Jerry West. Only LeBron James (three times) and Russell Westbrook have joined the club since.

This was also the first triple-double in Suns playoff history, a feat he would also accomplish in Game 4 of the Finals against Chicago. Only Penny Hardaway, Jason Kidd and Steve Nash have now done so in a Suns uniform.

Majerle scored his playoff career high of 34 points, making eight three-pointers to set the NBA record for the most in a playoff game. Overall, the Suns shot 9-of-12 from deep (Tom Chambers 1-1 in addition to Majerle’s 8-10) to tie the record for most three-pointers as a team in an NBA playoff game as the time.

“They were really concentrating on Charles Barkley and our other guys down low,” Majerle said. “Then a lot of times, they were leaving me to pick up Kevin Johnson. I was left out there alone. My teammates did a good job of finding me.” 

Beyond his stat line, it was Majerle down the stretch that closed out the game for the Suns.

The Suns let a late lead slip away again after leading by seven with two minutes remaining. Shawn Kemp canned a 15-footer to draw the score to 111-110 with 34.5 seconds left to play as the Sonics were looking to complete the comeback. On the Suns’ ensuing possession, Majerle drained his eighth three-pointer of the game to push the lead back to two possessions with 21 seconds to play.

Barkley and Majerle had a game for the history books as the Suns defeated the Sonics 120-114 to take a 3-2 series lead and move to one win away from the NBA Finals. This outing from Barkley and Majerle remains the only game in Suns playoff history in which one player scored 40-plus and another player scored 30-plus.

The duo didn’t do it alone as Kevin Johnson posted a double-double with 13 points and 10 assists while Chambers scored 11 points off the bench against his former team.

Standing just one win away from the NBA Finals, the Suns headed to Seattle in hopes of closing out the series.

Western Conference Finals Game 6 at Seattle. Thursday, June 3, 1993

Homecourt advantage seemed to provide a boost for the Sonics as they led 61-50 in the first half. The Suns managed to trim the margin to just five points late in the third period, but the Sonics scored the final six points of the third and then opened the fourth with the first five unanswered. That 11-0 run gave them a 91-75 lead from which the Suns could not recover.

The game featured the hostilities that such a tightly-contested playoff series can bring. Early in the fourth quarter, Danny Ainge fouled Michael Cage hard and Cage responded by shoving Ainge. Later, Frank Johnson accidentally kicked Ricky Pierce in the mouth. Sam Perkins then appeared to send a message to Frank Johnson, running hard into him and knocking him down at midcourt.

Despite the theatrics and emotion throughout the game, the Suns struggles from deep seemed to be too much to overcome. After tying an NBA record shooting 9-of-12 from three-point range in Game 5, the Suns shot just 2-of-15 from long distance, including 0-of-7 in the second half.

The Sonics ultimately forced a decisive Game 7 back in Phoenix after taking care of business. At home, 118-102.

Kevin Johnson led the Suns with 22 points and 4 assists. However, after their incredible performance in Game 5, Barkley and Majerle combined for just 25 points on 8-of-25 shooting.

Not only would the Suns be heading into a winner-take-all game with the Finals on the line, but they would have to do so without one of their key contributors. Cedric Ceballos scored 8 points in four minutes in the third quarter to help the Suns close the margin, but he re-injured his ailing left foot and exited the game. He was then diagnosed with a stress fracture and would miss the remainder of the playoffs. 

The Suns and Sonics readied for Game 7 at America West Arena. It marked just the fifth (now nine) Game 7 in Suns history and the third Game 7 for the Suns with a trip to the NBA Finals on the line (the last one also against the Sonics in 1979).

“There’s one more game,” Barkley said. “And it’s in the Valley of the Sun. People wonder why we play 82 games in the regular season. This is why.”

For the MVP, Barkley had the opportunity for his first Finals appearance of his Hall of Fame career.

The day before Game 7, the Chicago Bulls won their fourth straight game to close out a 4-2 series victory over the New York Knicks. The back-to-back champions advanced to the NBA Finals as they awaited to find out their opponent.

Western Conference Finals Game 7 vs Seattle. Saturday, June 5, 1993

Led by Barkley, the Suns caught fire early and jumped out in front and never looked back. Shooting 57-64 from the free throw line, the team did the vast majority of its damage from the charity stripe. 

The Suns’ 57 free throws are tied for the most in a playoff game in NBA history, matching Boston in a four-overtime win against Syracuse in 1953. The 64 attempts are also tied for the most by any team in a playoff game since the merger, matched only by Houston’s 64 free throw attempts against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 2 of the 2015 Western Conference Semifinals.

After a slow Game 6, Barkley returned to MVP form as he dominated with another legendary performance. He set a then Suns playoff record with 44 points (surpassing his 43 in Game 5) while also notching another franchise playoff record with 24 rebounds.

Barkley’s performance remains the most recent playoff game in which an NBA player has had 44-plus points and 24-plus rebounds. These video-game-like numbers not only guided the Suns to the victory, but further engrained Barkley’s legacy among the league’s greats.

-       Since the feat, only Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson have even recorded a 40/20 game in the playoffs.

-       Barkley and Elgin Baylor (Game 7 of the 1962 Finals at Boston) remain the only players in NBA history to record a 40/20 performance in a Game 7 of a playoff series.

-       Since the merger, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal and Barkley have had multiple games of 40-plus points and 15-plus rebounds in a playoff series.

-       Barkley’s 10 offensive rebounds also tied the Suns record he still shares with Gar Heard, Tyrone Corbin and Mark West.

Barkley’s Game 7 heroics led the Suns to a 123-110 as they officially clinched their spot in the NBA Finals for the first time in 17 years, completing an exhilarating roller-coaster ride through the Western Conference playoffs. 

“Call us whatever you want, but call us Western Conference champions,” Barkley said. 

For the second time in franchise history, the Suns were on their way to the NBA Finals. And they would hold homecourt advantage. The back-to-back champion Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan awaited in pursuit of a three-peat, readying for what would be one of the most viewed and remembered Finals in league history. 

Of all the teams the Bulls faced in the playoffs during the three-year run of their quest for a three-peat, no opponent had won more games than the Suns’ 62, creating one of the most anticipated Finals in NBA history. 

This perfectly set up for the main event: Charles Barkley vs Michael Jordan

The first NBA Finals since the Dream Team reshaped basketball history at the 1992 Olympic Games would feature the Dream Team’s two leading scorers and two of the sport’s biggest personalities. Barkley and Jordan had combined to win the previous three MVP awards; this remains one of just six NBA Finals series ever in which the players who had combined for the previous three NBA MVPs squared off against each other (Jordan and Malone in 1998, Jordan and Barkley in 1993, Jordan and Magic in 1991, Bird and Magic in 1987, Kareem and Cowens in 1974, Russell/Cousy and Pettit in 1958).  

The hardwood wouldn’t be the only place Barkley and Jordan would be competing that summer.

“We’re going to play as much golf as we can in between games,” Barkley told The Arizona Republic in build-up to the Finals. “We’ll play golf. We’ll have dinner, but when the game is on the line, I just want to win. Michael’s the only other person I’ve ever met in my life who is as competitive as I am, who hates to lose. I think that’s one thing he admires about me, and it’s one thing I definitely admire about him. Whether we’re playing cards or we’re playing golf or we’re playing basketball, we both just hate to lose."

Scottie Pippen knew the matchup would come down to more than Barkley and Jordan, however.

“As players, we don’t look at this as Michael against Charles. We look at this as the Bulls and the Suns. It depends on which team plays the best,” Pippen said. 

The Bulls returned their top seven players from the previous season, which concluded with Chicago winning the 1992 NBA Finals over Portland in six games. The team was of course led by Jordan, who had averaged 32.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.8 assists through the first three rounds of the 1993 playoffs. Pippen had averaged 19.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists in the playoffs while  B.J. Armstrong, the NBA’s leader in three-point percentage in 1992-93, started at point guard, Horace Grant, the Bulls’ leading rebounder, started at power forward and veteran center Bill Cartwright rounded out the starting five. Future Sun Scott Williams and veteran guard John Paxson were key reserves. 

While the Suns were pushed each step of the way during their playoff run to the Finals, the Bulls had mostly coasted following a 57-25 regular season. They swept the Hawks in the first round and the Cavaliers in the conference semis before facing their first real test in the postseason. They fell behind 2-0 to the top-seeded Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals, but then ripped off four straight wins to book their return to the NBA Finals.  

Barkley was set to make his first and only NBA Finals appearance with Paul Wespthal, the heartbeat and leading scorer on the 1976 “Sunderella Suns,” now on the sideline as Head Coach.

With ticket demand booming and commemorative merchandise flying off the shelves, the Valley was in a frenzy. The boisterous home crowd, along with the largest national television audience to date for any Game 1 in NBA Finals history, were ready for the series to begin. 

NBA Finals Game 1 vs. Chicago. Wednesday, June 9, 1993 

Things looked dark for the Suns early on as the Bulls proved quickly why they were the back-to-back champions, using that experience from the past few years to power them forward. 

In their first Finals game in 17 years, the Suns stumbled out of the gates against the two-time defending champs. The Bulls led 34-20 after one quarter before pushing their lead to as many as 20 points during the second.

The Suns began to settle in a bit later in the first half as they cut the margin to 52-41 by halftime. Phoenix continued to chip away at the deficit and closed the score to 88-85 on a Barkley jumper with just over four minutes remaining. However, the Bulls rattled off eight unanswered points, capped by a B.J. Armstrong three-pointer to build an insurmountable 96-85 Chicago lead with 2:19 remaining.

Jordan and Pippen led the way with a combined 58 points to survive the Suns rally with a 100-92 victory in Game 1.

“We knew we wanted to control the tempo,” Jordan said via the Associated Press. “This team is a run-and-gun type of team. When they get in the fast-breaking game they are dangerous. With our defense we just wanted to control the tempo … We’re an experienced team. We’ve been here before and know what it takes to win. We’ve got to go out there and prove it on the basketball court. One thing that happened with Phoenix is this is their first time to the finals so maybe they were a little too hyped.” 

After not playing in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, rookie swingman Richard Dumas returned to the Suns starting lineup and his performance was a bright spot despite the loss. He scored 20 points while grabbing a team-high 12 rebounds with 4 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals in 42 minutes. Dumas remains the most recent rookie to score at least 20 points in an NBA Finals Game. 

The Suns lost the homecourt advantage gained by their 62-win regular season, but America West Arena would still be hosting Game 2.

“Let’s don’t go crazy after one game,” Barkley said. “Let’s wait until after Game 2. If we lose that one, then we can go crazy.”

NBA Finals Game 2 vs. Chicago. Friday, June 11, 1993

The fans wanted to see Barkley vs Jordan and that’s exactly what they got in Game 2.

Both headliners in Barkley and Jordan scored 42 points, making this one of just three games in NBA. Finals history where opposing players each scored 40-plus (Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal in 2001; John Havlicek and Jerry West in 1969). 

Barkley’s 42 points were the most points ever scored by a Sun in a Finals game, and it marked his third time scoring 40-plus over his last five games. He played 46 minutes, shooting 16-of-26 from the field and 10-of-12 from the line while also grabbing 13 rebounds. 

The Suns found themselves trailing by 14 points in the second quarter before closing the margin to just one. They then trailed by 11 points in the third quarter, before once again going on another run to cut the deficit to 83-82 after consecutive three-point plays by Barkley. 

Early in the fourth quarter, Majerle drained a three-pointer to tie the score at 87. The following stretch featured three ties and two lead changes until the Bulls took the lead for good on a three-pointer from John Paxson for his first points in the game. While Danny Ainge hit two three-pointers in the final minute to close the gap to three points, that would be as close as the Suns got.

Barkley and Jordan both played like MVPs, but the Bulls made the winning plays down the stretch to take a commanding 2-0 series lead with a 111-108 victory. Chicago became the first team to start an NBA Finals series with two wins on the road.

“We’re in a hole right now and we’re in the right state for big holes,” Barkley said via the Arizona Republic. “We’d fit right into the Grand Canyon.”

The Suns trailed 2-0 as the series moved to Chicago. But this wasn’t unchartered territory for the resilient Suns, having dropped the first two at home before coming back to beat the Lakers in the opening round. 

NBA Finals Game 3 at Chicago. Sunday, June 13, 1993

The Suns were desperate for a win, even if it would take three overtimes to get there.

The Suns led 86-85 going into the fourth quarter, and opened the period on a 13-3 run to take a 99-88 lead. The Bulls rallied back to tie the score at 103-103 with 1:33 left in regulation. Both teams exchanged several empty possessions down the stretch before the game ultimately went to overtime tied at 103.

In the first overtime, Tom Chambers tied the score at 107 with 51 seconds remaining, however, the remainder of this period turned into a pool of missed opportunities. Jordan missed to give the Suns a chance to win it. Kevin Johnson missed on the Suns next possession. Barkley rebounded the attempt and missed. Johnson then rebounded and passed to Ainge, who also missed a jumper at the buzzer to send the game to a second overtime.

The Bulls led by four in the second overtime, including at 114-110 before Barkley hit a jumper with 33 seconds left. Pippen then missed the potential dagger on the Bulls’ ensuing possession to give the Suns a breath of life. Majerle then drained an 18-footer with :03.2 left to tie it at 114. Another Pippen miss at the buzzer and, for just the second time ever, an NBA Finals game went to a third overtime.

The Suns had not led throughout any of the overtime periods until Majerle drained another crucial shot, a three-pointer with 3:03 left in the third overtime to give the Suns a 119-118 lead. Barkley proceeded to score the next four points to give the Suns control as they outscored the Bulls 15-7 in the third overtime.  

“This will go down in history as one of the greatest games, up there with the three-overtime game I was in in Boston,” Westphal said via The Arizona Republic.

The Suns and Bulls played just the second triple-overtime game in NBA Finals history, joining the Suns-Celtics in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” in Game 5 of the 1976 Finals. However, this time the Suns came out on the winning end, drawing the series to 2-1 with a 129-121 victory.

The Suns had three players each notch at least 24 points in the triple overtime thriller.

Majerle led the Suns with 28 points while connecting on six three-pointers to tie a Finals record he shared at the time with Michael Jordan, Bill Laimbeer and Michael Cooper. Kevin Johnson set an NBA Finals record, playing 62 minutes as he scored 25 points to go along with 9 assists and 7 rebounds.

Despite a swollen right elbow that was heavily bandaged and drained just prior to the game, Barkley turned in a monster performance and notched a double-double with 24 points and 19 rebounds.

The Suns dug themselves another 2-0 hole, but after refusing to quit in a pivotal 3OT instant classic, they drew within one win of tying the series.



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