Suns Road to 1993 NBA Finals: Home-Court Advantage for Suns & Spurs
After finishing the regular season with the best record in the NBA, the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns were pushed to the brink of elimination in the opening round against the Los Angeles Lakers. But the team rallied together to make good on Head Coach Paul Westphal’s guarantee and completed a historic comeback as 1993 MVP Charles Barkley and rookie Oliver Miller guided the team into the second round in the Game 5 victory.
The Suns moved on from one of the franchise’s rivals to another, as next up came the San Antonio Spurs who eliminated the reigning Western Conference champion Portland Trail Blazers 3-1 in the opening round. It marked the second straight season the Suns and Spurs faced off in the playoffs, as the Suns swept the Spurs 3-0 in the first round a year prior.
But unlike in 1992, this Spurs team was arguably the hottest team in the NBA at this moment. After struggling early in the season under new head coach Jerry Tarkanian, the Spurs made another coaching change midseason, appointing John Lucas to the position. Lucas steered the team to a 23-3 record in his first 26 games as head coach as the team ultimately earned the fifth seed in the West with a 49-33 record for the season.
The Spurs came into Phoenix with a loaded roster featuring Charles Barley’s Dream Team teammate David Robinson, All-Star Sean Elliot, the NBA’s all-time leader in three-pointers made (at the time) Dale Ellis and point guard Avery Johnson. While the Suns had swept the Spurs in the 1992 playoffs and won the ’92-93 regular season series 3-1, this was not a team to be taken lightly.
After going the distance in the first round, the Suns had no time to rest, hosting Game 1 against the Spurs on May 11, just two days after completing series against the Lakers in an overtime thriller.
Western Conference Semifinals Game 1 vs San Antonio: Tuesday, May 11, 1993
Before the series had even tipped-off, the Suns already received good news earlier in the day as the NBA announced the 1992-93 All-Defensive Teams with Dan Majerle earning a Second Team selection.
While this was a well-deserved accolade for Majerle and the effort he committed to the defensive end, it was going to take a full-defensive focus from the team in order to hold-off the Spurs’ star-studded lineup.
And that defense was key. The Suns forced the Spurs into 20 turnovers and held San Antonio’s starting backcourt and wings (Johnson, Ellis, Elliot) to a combined 14 points on 6-of-22 shooting and just six assists.
The Suns led by as many as 18 points in the third quarter, but as was often the case in the first round, allowed their opponent to rally as the Spurs got within four points with 4:27 left in the game. That was as close as the Spurs would get, as Kevin Johnson’s scoring and playmaking in the final minutes ultimately led the Suns to a 98-89 victory.
The Suns took a 1-0 series lead as they won their fourth straight game, tying their longest playoff winning streak in team history (at the time).
Johnson played a critical role for the Suns in the victory as he led the way with 25 points, 7 assists and 5 steals.
“I’ve said all along, he’s played like the best point guard in the league,” Head Coach Paul Westphal told the Arizona Republic. “He showed how valuable he is to our team.”
Richard Dumas also stepped up big with 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting and was the primary defender on All-Star Sean Elliot, who was held to just eight points on 3-of-13 from the field.
After shooting 14-of-44 in his previous two games, Charles Barkley headed to the practice court to get some shots up following Game 1. The MVP of the league was determined to get out of his shooting slump and, in Game 2, that’s exactly what happened.
Western Conference Semifinals Game 2 vs San Antonio: Thursday, May 13, 1993
The extra work paid off for Barkley as he dominated the first quarter with 14 early points en route to a game-high 35 points on 12-of-18 shooting. He also grabbed 10 rebounds, set a Suns playoff record with 7 steals and blocked 3 shots.
At the time, he joined then Suns assistant coach Lionel Hollins, Rick Barry and Patrick Ewing as the only players ever with at least 30 points and 7 steals in a playoff game (only Allen Iverson has since joined this club).
Through the first three quarters, the Suns shot 62.3 percent from the field while holding the Spurs to just 42.9 percent. However, those percentages flipped in the fourth as the Spurs shot 50 percent and the Suns shot just 29.4 percent.
Once again, the Suns built a large lead, then had to hold on to preserve a victory in the closing minutes. The Suns opened a 94-78 lead in the fourth quarter, but Vinny Del Negro scored the first nine points on an 11-2 run for the Spurs as they trimmed the margin to seven points with 2:23 left, five points with 1:28 left and four points with :09.6 left.
The Suns were able to hold on at the free throw line and ultimately defeated the Spurs, 109-103. They took a commanding 2-0 series lead and improved the franchise record to five consecutive playoff wins with the six-point victory.
“It’s a great feeling when they go in,” Barkley told The Arizona Republic. “If I’m making my short jump shot, then I’ve got pump-fakes, I’ve got layups, I get a lot off of that. It also opens so much for everybody else.”
Johnson continued with another impressive performance, notching a double-double with 15 points and 12 assists. Majerle added 18 points of his own as Oliver Miller scored 8 points on 4-of-4 shooting with 4 assists and 4 blocks off the bench.
Despite letting off the gas late in Games 1 and 2, the Suns were mostly in control to take a 2-0 series lead at home. The series now shifted to San Antonio for a weekend matinee back-to-back. The Spurs were in their final season at their original home, the HemisFair Arena, preparing to move to the Alamodome which would coincidentally be hosting its grand opening festivities on Saturday, May 15, the same day as Game 3.
Western Conference Semifinals Game 3 at San Antonio: Saturday, May 15, 1993
After locking down the Spurs in the first two games, the Spurs’ supporting cast got back on track on their home floor and the Suns struggled to connect from deep in Game 3.
The Spurs owned the second quarter, shooting 17-of-24 from the field for 38 points, including 10 from Dale Ellis. San Antonio took a 65-55 halftime lead and ultimately never looked back. The Suns shot just 40.7 percent for the game and missed all 10 of their three-point attempts as the offense failed to find any rhythm.
The Spurs took Game 3 with a 111-96 victory, snapping the Suns’ five-game winning streak and narrowing the series to 2-1. The balanced attacked from Antoine Carr (21 points), Ellis (20 points), Elliot (17 points), Robinson (13 points) and Terry Cummings (12 points) was all too much for the team to overcome.
“We don’t necessarily have to go through Davis all the time when the other guys step up,” Lucas told The Arizona Republic. “And that’s what happened. Other guys stepped up.”
Despite the loss, Johnson led the Suns with 26 points and 7 assists while Barkley posted a double-double with 22 points and 14 rebounds.
Western Conference Semifinals Game 4 at San Antonio: Sunday, May 16, 1993
Back-to-back regular season games are difficult. Back-to-back playoff games require an entirely different level of both physical and mental toughness. Meeting for the second time in two days, the Suns found themselves in a much better groove early on.
Phoenix led by nine late in the first half, but San Antonio trimmed the margin to just four by intermission and that was all they needed to battle back. The Spurs went on to outscore the Suns by nine points in both the third and fourth quarters, 65-47, and held the Suns to just 13-of-36 shooting in the second half.
The Spurs went on a 15-6 run early in the fourth to take a decisive 100-86 lead with eight minutes remaining before ultimately closing-out the game, 117-103. The Spurs defended their home floor again with a double-digit victory, sending the series back to Phoenix tied 2-2.
Robinson dominated for the Spurs with a then playoff career-high 36 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocks. Behind Robinson shooting 18-of-23 from the charity stripe, the Spurs shot 35-of-45 free throws while the Suns shot 28-of-38. The Admiral’s 23 free throw attempts remain a Suns opponent playoff record.
“We couldn’t get any defensive momentum because it’s hard to defend free throws,” Westphal told The Arizona Republic.
Johnson once again led the Suns in scoring with 26 points and 8 assists, while Barkley added another double-double with 18 points and 12 boards. Danny Ainge was a spark off the bench with 15 points, including 3-of-5 from long distance.
After opening the series with two wins in Phoenix to run their winning streak to five in a row, the Spurs regained momentum with two wins in San Antonio. The series would now return to Phoenix tied at 2-2 with the Suns looking to maintain homecourt advantage in a pivotal Game 5.
Neither team had lost a home game yet and the pressure was on for the Suns to keep this trend going.
Join us on a trip down memory lane, as Suns.com takes a look back at the team’s miraculous 1993 playoff run. Every Monday, we’ll recap the week ahead in team history as the Suns inch closer to their historic NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls.