Suns Road to 1993 NBA Finals: WCF Tips-Off Against Sonics
After finishing the regular season with the best record in basketball, the Phoenix Suns were forced to go the distance in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers and took care of the second round much easier. The semi-finals series against the San Antonio Spurs was tied 2-2, before the Suns ultimately took care of business in six games behind Charles Barkley’s game-winner to send them to the Western Conference Finals for the third time in five years.
Next up, the Seattle SuperSonics.
This was the first time the two teams would tip-off in the postseason since the 1979 Western Conference Finals in which Seattle won in seven games before ultimately claiming the NBA title. The Suns would look to avoid letting history repeat itself and geared up to play one of the toughest rosters in the league.
The Sonics finished the 1992-93 regular season 55-27 and earned the third seed in the West. They were the only team that season to post a better average point differential than the Suns as the Sonics ranked first in the NBA with a +7.07 average margin while the Suns were right behind them in second at +6.66. Just like the Suns, the Sonics had been battle-tested throughout the first two rounds, going the game sevens in both series against the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets.
One of the most balanced teams in the league, the Sonics featured six players averaging between 12 and 19 points during the regular season. They were equipped with two veteran bucket-getters in leading scorer Ricky Pierce and former Sun Eddie Johnson as well as rising stars in Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton. Derrick McKey and Nate McMillan rounded out the strong defensive unit in the backcourt and on the wings while Sam Perkins and Michael Cage bolstered the frontcourt.
The Sonics joined the Cavaliers and the Clippers as the only three teams to win the regular season series over the Suns as they won three of the five matchups against Phoenix. The Sonics lineup was tough, but the Suns were equipped with arguably the deepest team in the league to counter.
After closing out the Spurs on May 20, the Suns finally had a chance to catch their breath before hosting the Sonics in Game 1 four days later.
Western Conference Finals Game 1 vs Seattle. Monday, May 24, 1993.
Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals featured a highly-contested match throughout the first two quarters. The Suns held a narrow four-point lead at halftime which was ultimately cut to just one point in the third.
But Cedric Ceballos then began a 10-0 run to put the Suns in control and the team never looked back. The Suns led 76-65 at the end of the third and didn’t allow a Sonic field goal for the first 4:14 of the fourth quarter, expanding their lead to 88-77.
Defense was key for the Suns as they blocked 16 shots, led by five from Oliver Miller and four from Mark West while holding Seattle to just 41.4 percent shooting. The 16 blocks set a Suns playoff record for blocks in a game that remains tied for the third-most in a playoff game in NBA history.
The Suns defeated the Sonics convincingly 105-91 to take 1-0 series lead at home, winning their third straight and snapping a three-game losing streak against Seattle.
The decision by Head Coach Paul Westphal to reinsert Ceballos into the starting lineup paid off as he scored a game-high 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting in just 23 minutes before leaving the game with a left foot injury.
“It’s all about timing,” Ceballos said. “Paul as a coach has been pretty good at determining who to use and when. It’s maybe a little unusual for a team of this caliber to go this late in the season alternating people at one position, but it’s worked so far.”
Miller had another big game off the bench with 15 points, 10 rebounds, 5 blocks, 4 assists and 2 steals. Danny Ainge added 11 points with three three-pointers in the victory.
As the Suns prepared for Game 2, the NBA officially announced Charles Barkley had been named the Most Valuable Player for the 1992-93 season. Sir Charles became the first Suns player to win MVP and the first player other than Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan to do so since 1984. He received 59 of 98 first-place votes and 835 votes overall with Hakeem Olajuwon finishing second, Jordan third and Patrick Ewing fourth.
“I can’t explain the last year of my life,” said Barkley. “Nobody gets it this good. I go from the Dream Team, to the best regular-season record, to the Western Conference Finals, to MVP."
Although the league made the announcement that Tuesday, Suns President Jerry Colangelo had informed Barkley eight days prior that he had won.
“But he told me I had to keep it secret, and I don’t keep secrets very well,” said Barkley, via The Arizona Republic, “I didn’t even tell my family, because they have a big mouth.”
Western Conference Finals Game 2 vs Seattle. Wednesday, May 26, 1993
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: ‘The 1993 Suns surrendered a late lead.’ After taking care of business in Game 1, the Suns had hopes to take extend their lead and go up 2-0 lead on their home court.
The Sonics trailed 80-70 with just over 11 minutes left in the game, but the Sonics continued to chip away and cut the Suns’ lead to 97-96 on a Sam Perkins three with less than two minutes remaining. Shawn Kemp then gave the Sonics the lead at the free throw line.
The Suns weren’t quite done yet as Miller put the Suns back ahead at 99-98 with a minute to go, but Perkins responded with another three-pointer with 10 seconds left in the game, putting the Sonics up 101-99. Ainge attempted the game-tying shot, but missed as the Sonics closed out Game 2 103-99.
The Sonics rally tied the series 1-1 to steal homecourt advantage and head to Seattle. The Suns’ struggles at the line cost them the game even though they attempted nine more free throws than the Sonics, they only made one more shooting just 26-of-41 to Seattle’s 25-of-32.
“Give Seattle credit,” Barkley said via The Arizona Republic. “They’re a good team. They’ve been right behind us in the West all year. But you can’t leave guys wide open for threes in a tight game and you can’t miss free throws.”
Despite the loss, Majerle battled throughout the entire game, playing all 48 minutes and leading the Suns with a then playoff career high 29 points in addition to 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks. Barkley, who received his MVP award from Commissioner David Stern just prior to tip-off, also posted a double-double with 24 points, 10 rebounds and a team-high 6 assists.
The series shifted to Seattle tied 1-1 with the Sonics now in possession of homecourt advantage. In order to wrest it back, the Suns would need to win in Seattle, where they were 0-2 in the regular season and the Sonics were 6-1 through the first two rounds. The Suns, however, had the best road record in the NBA during the year and were 4-2 on the road throughout the playoffs thus far.
Western Conference Finals Game 3 at Seattle. Friday, May 28, 1993.
The Suns once again found themselves in a close game late as the score was tied up at 80 entering the fourth quarter. But unlike in Game 2, the Suns remained aggressive.
The team opened the final period on a 12-0 run, including seven points from Frank Johnson. The Sonics trimmed the margin back to two points in the final two minutes, but Majerle knocked down a three with 37 seconds remaining to give the Suns a 103-96 lead and put the game away.
Just as the Sonics stole a win in Phoenix, the Suns returned the favor with a 104-97 victory in Seattle to take a 2-1 series lead.
Kevin Johnson led the Suns with 20 points and 9 assists while shooting 10-of-14 from the free throw line. While Barkley struggled from the field, he still added 16 points, 16 rebounds and 4 steals in the win.
But the real key for the Suns came from their bench unit which outscored Seattle’s 45-11. Three different Suns reserves scored in double figures as Ceballos scored 14 and both Tom Chambers and Frank Johnson scored 10.
“I think we took Seattle’s depth as a challenge and, obviously, we got very good play from our bench.”
Western Conference Finals Game 4 at Seattle. Sunday, May 30, 1993.
Game 4 was a different story as the Sonics were seeking revenge after losing on their home floor.
The Suns kept it close throughout the first half, trailing by just three entering the third quarter. However, the Sonics caught fire coming out of the break, outscoring the Suns 59-43 in the second half. Seattle broke the game open on a 21-7 run in the third quarter which included eight points from Derrick McKey.
The Sonics dominated in nearly all phases of the game as they shot 54.0 percent from the field while holding the Suns to just 43.5 percent. The Sonics, who had been controlling the offensive glass through the series, continued that trend with 21 offensive boards.
Their 120 points were the most allowed by the Suns to this point in these playoffs as they won decisively 120-101 to tie the series back up 2-2.
After scoring 23 points in the first half, Seattle held Barkley to just four points in the final two quarters as he and Kevin Johnson struggled to keep the Suns offense afloat.
“It was disheartening to see us drop our heads and lose intensity in the third quarter,” Johnson said via the Arizona Republic. “It’s 2-2 going back to Phoenix, and we feel good about that, but for us to go out there and have a lackluster effort on the court is ridiculous.”
For the third time in three series during these playoffs, the Suns were tied 2-2 with their opponent. They needed two more wins to advance to the NBA Finals, but the Sonics were proving to be a formidable adversary. Fortunately for the Suns, they had the MVP.
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.