While standing on the doorstep of history, laughing and measuring themselves for Three-Peat T-shirts, the world-champion Chicago Bulls were ambushed. In as unlikely a turnaround as the NBA Finals has ever seen, the Phoenix Suns, as dormant as desert cactus in losing Games 1 and 2 at home, beat the Bulls 129-121 in a memorable triple-overtime Game 3 on Sunday at Chicago Stadium.
After becoming the only Finalists in history to lose the opening two games at home, the Suns reinvented themselves as a team of heart and desire. Charles Barkley, seemingly discouraged and benumbed after Game 2, was almost giddy as he gathered his troops around him before each overtime period, patting them on the back and keeping them loose. Even before the outcome was decided, three hours and 20 minutes after the contest began, the Suns seemed to realize that they were in a game that will never be forgotten, one that will most assuredly be held up by downtrodden teams as a beacon of inspiration.
Seventeen years earlier Phoenix was involved in the only other triple-overtime Finals game, a 128-126 loss to the Boston Celtics. This time they were going to make it right for Sun coach Paul Westphal, a player for the losers in that game.
Sunday's victory not only averted what seemed to be an almost certain sweep; it also obliterated the perception that the Suns were nothing more than one of those colorful Southwestern rugs upon which the Bulls could step en route to joining the Celtics ('58-59 through '65-66) and the Minneapolis Lakers ('51-52 through '53-54) as the only teams in NBA history to have won at least three straight titles. The series could still end in Chicago, where Games 4 and 5 were scheduled for Wednesday and Friday, but it will not end without a little more blood, sweat and tears than had been anticipated.
Indeed, before Game 3 one was hard-pressed to remember a championship series in which one team had been so suddenly and so dramatically diminished in stature as had Phoenix, which finished the regular season with the NBA's best record. Honey, the Bulls shrunk the Suns—or so it had seemed. They had turned three-point threat Dan Majerle, known in Phoenix as Thunder Dan, into a low-pressure system somewhere over Akron. And they had turned All-Star point guard Kevin into just another Johnson; specifically, they had turned him into grizzled 34-year-old veteran Frank Johnson, who had been called upon to direct the Suns' attack down the stretch in Game 2 after KJ had become flustered and ineffective. All in all, Games 1 and 2 had been Barkley's worst nightmare: He had played all season with the league's winningest team, only to watch it turn into his old club, the hapless Philadelphia 76ers, when June rolled around.
The most surprising comebacks in Game 3 were made by KJ and Majerle. The latter made six three-pointers, tying a Finals record, and finished with a team-high 28 points. Indeed, it was Majerle's trey from at least four paces behind the line that put Phoenix ahead for good with 3:02 remaining in the final overtime, and his two free throws with 1:09 left put the game out of reach at 125-118.
Meanwhile KJ, a candidate for the psychiatrist's couch after having more turnovers (nine) than assists (eight) in the first two games, scored 25 points and, just as important, guarded Michael Jordan effectively (box, page 22). He played 62 of the game's 63 minutes, departing only when the outcome was clear.
The Suns needed every second of Majerle's and Johnson's combined 121 minutes too, because Barkley was obviously affected by the severely bruised right elbow he suffered when he hit the floor hard in Game 2. That's probably why he had only 24 points and 19 rebounds on Sunday—Finals records for someone whose shooting elbow had been drained of fluid just 30 minutes before tip-off. Still, Barkley was in an upbeat mood before, during and, especially, after the game, a turnaround from his state in Phoenix. And the Suns, who seemed as if they were being led to slaughter when the game began, were unquestionably the looser team down the stretch.
The Bulls, by contrast, seemed fatigued and out of sorts in the overtime periods, apparently frustrated by the fact that they had left a spark of life in the seemingly extinguished Suns and burdened by the feeling that making history wouldn't be as easy as it had seemed. Had they been overconfident? "I wouldn't even imply that," said Chicago guard John Paxson after Game 3. "Not in this locker room."
Well, we're not in the locker room now, so let's imply it. Perhaps overconfident isn't the right word. Unfocused might be better. Never mind the pass that Bull center-forward Stacey King threw directly into the arms of Barkley with 1:43 left in the final overtime, giving Barkley a layup and Phoenix a 123-118 lead. That's what King does. Instead, return to the waning moments of the first quarter when, with the Bulls leading 29-25, forward Scottie Pippen foolishly shot with 12 seconds left instead of letting the clock run down for a last-second effort and was charged with an offensive foul. KJ then bolted down the floor and hit a jumper at the other end with 4.3 seconds on the clock. Bull center Scott Williams threw away the subsequent inbounds pass, leading to a dunk at :01.5 by Richard Dumas, the Suns' rookie forward, and a 29-29 tie.
"We were focused on the sweep," said Jordan, getting points for honesty, "but we didn't do the things we needed to sweep." Like taking the ball hard to the hole. Chicago shot only nine free throws in the game (Phoenix shot 31), a fact that had many Bulls grumbling after the game. But Jordan and Pippen settled for outside jumpers far too often.
"Damn!" said Barkley, interrupting Majerle's postgame press conference. "Michael shot 43 times. [He made only 19.] That's unbelievable. He's gonna be icing his elbow too."
Perhaps that would be Barkley's last laugh, because Jordan's history has been to follow a bad shooting game with a superb one. He made only three of 18 shots from the floor in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Knicks, for example, and then torched the Knicks with 54 points in Game 4, hitting 18 of 30 field goal attempts.
Then, too, Jordan was the star of Games 1 and 2 at America West Arena. Nothing the Suns did—including trotting out the NBA's most obnoxious fan (hit the road, Robin Ficker) and the airwaves' most bellicose commentator (lower the volume, Rush Limbaugh)—could stop him. Neither could the ominous implications of Richard Esquinas's book, Michael & Me; Oar Gambling Addiction...My Cry For Help!, and all the peripheral distractions that came with it.
The most interesting subplot of the series was, of course, the convergence of Jordan and Barkley, the NBAs two biggest names. Both players went into Game 1, on June 9, with a bulldog press yapping at their heels, shouting questions of the tabloid kind. No, said Charles, I have not danced with Madonna, I have not slept with Madonna, I am not going out with Madonna. The reports linking Barkley with the Material Girl seemed to be the kind of tiling that he might have had fun with, but he was not amused. (He says they met quite by coincidence at a Phoenix restaurant and that was the end of it.) Barkley's separation from his wife, Maureen, and three-year-old daughter, Christiana, is no laughing matter for him, and thus the subject of any dalliance with Madonna was not immaterial.
Jordan finally broke the media boycott he had begun before Game 3 of the New York series when he taped an interview with NBC's Ahmad Rashad, a close personal friend, that ran during halftime of Game 1. The questioning reminded no one of, say, 60 Minutes. To summarize, Jordan, behind a pair of impenetrable shades, said he did not have a gambling problem and continued to maintain that his gambling debt with his erstwhile golfing opponent Esquinas did not run into seven figures, as Esquinas alleges. Jordan's composure during that interview and at every moment surrounding those first two games was cool and collected.
Barkley's was not. His nervousness before Game 1 was evident, and it translated into a nine-of-25 shooting performance in the Suns' 100-92 loss. Chicago put only one man on Barkley—usually Horace Grant, the league's most-underrated defender—and thus was able to keep its other four players at home to protect against Phoenix's deadly three-point shooters, Majerle and guard Danny Ainge, who together got off only five treys in the game and made just one. The following day Barkley still seemed curiously weary of all the attention, weary of carrying the Suns.
By contrast, Jordan was back in form, handling questions as easily as he handled the Phoenix defense (such as it was), skillfully eluding specific inquiries about his gambling. He even admitted to getting in a round or two of golf while he was in Phoenix. (Can we please have a moratorium on reporting about NBA players and golf, except in the case of real news stories, such as the Esquinas business? No more stories about Jordan's playing golf, no more stories about Barkley's playing golf, no more stories about Jordan's playing golf with Barkley—like the one broadcast by one Phoenix television station, which aired tape of a Jordan foursome shot from a helicopter and claimed Barkley had been part of the group when the player in question was, in fact, NBC commentator Quinn Buckner. After all, no one discusses hunting with baseball players or bass fishing with linemen.)
NBA commissioner David Stern said on Sunday that he is satisfied that Jordan is not a compulsive gambler. Stern seems almost as eager as Jordan to put l'affaire Esquinas behind him, and it will be interesting to see if that happens.
But if there was anything on Jordan's mind except establishing himself as the greatest player on one of the greatest teams in history, it was not evident in the Bulls' 111-108 Game 2 victory. He scored 42 points to go with 12 rebounds and nine assists, while making life quite gnarly for Majerle. So fresh was Jordan after his sterling all-around game that he could have probably played 18...sorry.
Barkley (42 points and 13 rebounds) was a man possessed in Game 2. His indomitable will would not allow him to be embarrassed two games in a row. Jordan's efforts, as well as those of Pippen (15 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists), were cool and cohesive, the Bulls' signature style. Barkley's efforts, by contrast, were sweaty and, ultimately, enervating, because he was often a one-man band, as Majerle's bad shooting (four of 14) and Kevin Johnson's horrendous floor play (four points, four turnovers) continued.
After the game came a spirited rebuke by Barkley of the home fans who had booed Johnson, which proved to be his best defense of the series. Jordan, lest we forget, can beat you with his scoring, rebounding, passing and defense, while Barkley, this year's MVP, murders you only in the first three categories. To wit: Grant's 24-point performance in Game 2 did not negate Barkley's 42-point effort, but it certainly diminished it.
Sir Charles also issued a defense of the obnoxious Ficker, who usually haunts the visitors' bench at the Capital Centre, home of the Washington Bullets—though Barkley denied reports that he had paid for Picker's travel and for the ticket that had placed the heckling lawyer just a couple of rows behind the Chicago bench. Ficker, with his trademark rubber chicken in hand, was finally thrown out of the arena in the fourth quarter of Game 2 after several go-rounds with NBA security.
Neither could Phoenix capitalize on the presence of Limbaugh, a close friend of Westphal's, who offered a pregame suggestion to his good buddy—run more plays to the right. (Cue laugh track.)
That is not exactly what the Suns did in Game 3. But they did send Johnson around instead of through the Bull defense, hoping to curb his tendency to lose the ball in heavy traffic (though he did commit seven turnovers). They also spaced themselves more judiciously when KJ drove, helping him to collect nine assists. They tinkered with the matchups (Barkley on center Bill Cartwright, small forward Dumas on point guard B.J. Armstrong, in addition to Johnson on Jordan), fought hard for loose balls and challenged Jordan on every shot.
Still, at week's end the Bulls held the upper hand, needing mostly to regain that steely-eyed resolve with which they had begun the series. Anyway, it's not dignified to walk through the doors of history carrying a broom. Better to battle your way past a worthy opponent, something like a Phoenix risen from the ashes.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
In Sunday's epic battle Jordan, Barkley and Johnson were each embroiled in the struggle for at least 53 minutes.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Barkley's jubilation in Game 3 (above) was borne of the Bulls' dominance in Phoenix.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
After stumbling against B.J. and the Bulls in Phoenix (left), KJ finally soared in Chicago.
[See caption above.]
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Jordan's glistening play in Games 1 and 2—he scored 73 points—had Phoenix sweating.