Suns Road to 1993 NBA Finals: Westy’s Guarantee
After a historic regular season that earned them homecourt advantage and the number one seed throughout the postseason, the Phoenix Suns were on the verge of an early exit just two games into the 1993 playoffs.
The Suns were heavily favored to take care of the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round after sweeping them 5-0 during the season. However, the Suns’ top-ranked offense failed to get on track as the Lakers stunned the basketball world by winning both Game 1 and Game 2 in Phoenix to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
“We had the best record in the league,” former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo said. “We led the league in wins all the way and then almost lost in the first round.”
No team had ever come back from an 0-2 deficit on their home floor to win a best-of-five series, but no eight seed had ever knocked off a one seed before either. So, regardless of the series outcome, the stage was set for one of the two teams to make NBA history within the following week.
While doubt began to set in that one of the greatest teams to ever play in The Valley could have the utmost disappointing postseason exit, one man still believed they could come back to win. Head Coach Paul Westphal took the podium following Game 2 and boldly guaranteed it.
“So, we’re down 0-2,” Westphal said. “I know the next question is, ‘Are you guys dead?’ No. We’re going to win the series. We’re going to win one Tuesday and the next game’s Thursday. We’re going to win there and then we’re going to come back and we will win the series on Sunday. And everybody will say what a great series it was.”
This claim did more than just make headlines, though, as it galvanized the Suns locker room that their coach still had full faith in them shifted some of the spotlight that would have seemingly been on the players.
“It took the pressure off of all of us,” Suns Ring of Honor member Tom Chambers said. “Now, they’re just talking about what Westy said and we loved it. We loved the confidence he had.”
Westphal’s promise reminded the team that they had the best regular season record for a reason; because they were better than what they displayed the first two games.
“I just believed in that team,” Westphal said. “I just knew we were better than the Lakers. It wasn’t an act. I just completely believed we were going to win.”
It’s tough to keep your head up after being embarrassed on your home court, but after hearing the belief that Westphal had, his team’s confidence rose to a-whole-nother level.
“I remember looking up and I said, ‘Oh, coach said that? Well, we got his back so that’s the way it’s going to be.’ That was an amazing series,” Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said.
“The confidence that we took in the locker room after being down 0-2 was bananas,” said swingman Cedric Ceballos. “We just had to get it together. KJ had been down. Bringing him back, get him going. We knew our confidence was there. We had lost games before. This was just a proper introduction to us going on a good winning streak."
A three-game winning streak was a necessity at this point as the Suns traveled to Los Angeles for Game 3.
Western Conference First Round Game 3 at. L.A. Lakers, Tuesday, May 4, 1993:
The series moved to the Great Western Forum where the Lakers were a perfect 17-0 in first-round playoff games since the NBA expanded to a 16-team format in 1984, needing just one win to become the first eight seed to upset a one seed in the first round.
The Suns looked like a team on a mission to begin the game as they outscored the Lakers in each of the first three quarters. They rattled off 17 unanswered points in the first half to take their largest lead of the game at 39-24.
After leading the NBA in three-pointers made and ranking 3rd in shooting percentage from long distance during the regular season, the Suns shot just a combined 2-of-19 from deep in the first two games of the series. That trend corrected itself in Game 3 as the Suns shot 6-of-12 from three-point range, anchored by sure-handed marksmen Danny Ainge (3-of-4) and Dan Majerle (2-of-4).
The Suns were on a roll throughout almost the entirety of the ball game. They pushed their lead to 14 points late in the third quarter and found themselves up by seven with just two minutes left in the game. While the Suns appeared to have the victory in hand, the Lakers once again found a way to rally back and push Phoenix to the brink of elimination.
Much like their 9-0 run to end Game 1 and their 9-1 run to end Game 2, the Lakers again rallied to within just a point at 101-100 with 1:25 remaining. The sellout crowd chanted, “Sweep,” as the Suns turned over the ball with 1:14 left to give the Lakers an opportunity to take the lead.
However, James Worthy’s baseline jumper missed. Rookie big man Oliver Miller knocked down two free throws with 46 seconds left to put the Suns up 103-100. With 27 seconds to play, the margin returned to one point at after a Byron Scott layup.
Another Suns rookie, Richard Dumas, made a pair of free throws with 18 seconds left to put the Suns up 105-102. The Lakers had a chance to tie the game, but Vlade Divac’s pull-up three-pointer was an airball and the Suns regained possession.
Kevin Johnson knocked down both free throws to close out the game, 107-102.
The Suns avoided the series sweep as 1993 NBA MVP Charles Barkley led the way with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists.
Both rookies, Dumas and Miller, stepped up in several clutch moments down the stretch for the Suns. Dumas was back in the Suns starting lineup and finished as the team’s second-leading scorer with 18 points. Miller scored 6 of his 11 points in the fourth quarter and had an outstanding all-around game off the bench, shooting 4-of-4 from the field to go along with 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks.
“I believe this was the Lakers’ best game of the series but we played a little better,” Westphal said via the Associate Press. “I think we got back to the style we’re comfortable with. We were able to get our running game going a little bit and I thought that was the reason we were able to win the game.”
The Suns won a nail-biter in Game 3 to complete the first phase of Paul Westphal’s three-step guarantee, but they still remained one loss away from their dream season coming to an end heading into another win-or-go-home contest at The Forum in Game 4.
Western Conference First Round Game 4 at. L.A. Lakers, Thursday, May 6, 1993:
Unlike the previous games, the Lakers kept up with the Suns evenly throughout the first half. The score was tied 51-51 in the third quarter before the Suns stonewalled the Lakers nine times over a ten-possession span, going on a 17-2 run to open up their lead.
The Lakers got as close as nine points with 5:12 remaining in the fourth quarter after technical fouls by Miller and Kevin Johnson, but the Suns responded with a 13-2 run to put the game away, winning Game 4 101-86.
The Suns shot 50% from the field, their best mark of the series, while holding the Lakers to their series-low of 36.7%.
Just like Game 3, Barkley dominated in all facets of the game for the Suns with 28 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals.
Miller once again came up huge off the bench, scoring 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking two shots. Danny Ainge was also key in the second unit, scoring 13 points and making 2-of-3 three-pointers.
“We’re finally playing like the Suns now,” Ainge said via The Arizona Republic. “I don’t know if it was the pressure that got us early in the series, but I do know we’ve never been in this situation before as a team.”
Step two of Westphal’s three-step guarantee was completed and the team returned home for a decisive Game 5, greeted by thousands of vivacious Suns fans at Sky Harbor International Airport.
The Suns had gone 35-6 at home during the regular season, but were 0-2 at America West Arena against the Lakers this postseason. The Suns were looking to become the first team to recover from dropping the first two games of a five-game series at home, but in 10 previous 0-2 playoff situation in franchise history, the Suns had never rallied to win the series.
Western Conference First Round Game 5 at. L.A. Lakers, Sunday, May 9, 1993:
Playing on Mother’s Day in just the second ever winner-take-all game between a one seed and an eight seed, the Suns needed the victory to avoid a disappointing first-round exit and advance to the next round.
The Suns once again found themselves with a comfortable lead in the fourth quarter, up 10 with 10 minutes remaining, but the Lakers also once again found a way to battle back. James Worthy helped lead Los Angeles on a 22-8 run to take a four-point lead at 95-91 with 1:08 left in regulation.
Barkley and Majerle came to the Suns’ rescue as each converted on clutch jumpers to tie the game at 95-95 with 13 seconds remaining in the fourth. The Lakers had an attempt to win the series, but Byron Scott’s three-pointer at the buzzer fell short.
So, through all the dramatics and all the history that had already played out in the five-game series, Westphal’s guarantee would need to stretch just a little further as the winner-take-all game entered overtime.
Miller had played a crucial role for the Suns in their previous two victories, but his performance in overtime in Game 5 went above and beyond what anyone could have imagined.
“He wasn’t afraid of the moment and he came in and made some big plays for us,” Westphal said.
Miller scored the first four points of overtime to help the Suns quickly take a six-point lead. For the overtime period, Miller tied the Lakers in scoring, 9-9, and outrebounded them, 5-1. His late game heroics were exactly what the Suns needed as they took care of the Lakers easily in overtime, 112-104 to win the series.
“I was really aggressive today, because we needed this game,” Miller said via The Arizona Republic. “I was gonna do anything to help us win. If they call for me to block shots, I’ll block it. Talk trash, I’ll talk it. Whatever it took, I was gonna do it.”
For the fifth straight game in the series, Barkley led or tied for the team lead in points and rebounds, posting 31 points, 14 rebounds and five assists.
But when it came down to crunch time, the Suns turned to their young rookie on their bench and the decision paid off gloriously. Miller recorded 17 points, 14 rebounds and tied a Suns playoff record with 7 blocks. In NBA history, Manute Bol and David Robinson are the only other rookies to have ever posted more blocks in a playoff game.
To this day, Miller against the Lakers, Hakeem Olajuwon (1993) and Dikembe Mutombo (2001) are the only players ever to post a double-double and at least 7 blocks in a winner-take-all playoff game.
Barkley led the Suns by averaging 27.6 points and 14.4 rebounds in the series, but it was Miller who provided the difference. After totaling 14 minutes and zero points in Games 1 and 2 combined as the Suns fell in a 0-2 hole, Miller averaged 14.7 points on 69.2% shooting, 10.0 rebounds, 3.7 blocks, 2.7 assists and 1.0 stelas in 31.7 minutes over the Suns’ three wins in the series’ final three games. And when Game 5 turned to overtime, it was “The Big O” who pushed the Suns on to round two.
A week after his proclamation, the Suns won on Sunday to make a prophet of Westphal and complete his guarantee. And indeed, everyone would say what a great series it was.
“I just had this belief that somehow, someway we were going to win,” Westphal said. “Those guys backed it up.”
The top-seeded Suns were pushed to the limit by the proud Lakers before overcoming the odds and making the plays necessary to advance. While the players were given the confidence from Westphal’s guarantee, the feeling that is actually came true brought them to another level.
“Westy made that famous quote,” Majerle said. “To actually do that was unbelievable.”
The Suns had completed the historic comeback, but this was just the beginning for a team with championship aspirations. While they were no longer facing one-game elimination, they knew the competition would only grow from here.
Next up would be the fifth-seeded San Antonio Spurs and Barkley’s Dream Team mate David Robinson, who advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals after a 3-1 series win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
While Robinson and the Spurs brought an intimidating team to the hardwood, the Suns were on a roll and ready to get things started.
“We felt like we could beat anybody, anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” Chambers said. “We could. We were that good of a basketball team.”
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.