1993: Bulls versus Suns (Bulls Complete the Three-Peat)

Background

No team had won three straight championships since the Celtics of the 1960s. In 1992-93, the Chicago Bulls entered the season with their sights set on making history. They finished the regular season with 57 wins, ten fewer than the previous year, good enough for the second seed in the playoffs behind the New York Knicks. In the playoffs, the Bulls swept both the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers in the first two rounds. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Chicago quickly went down 2-0 after losing both games at Madison Square Garden. The Bulls rallied, however, and won the next two at home to tie the series. In the pivotal game five, Chicago’s defense blocked Charles Smith four straight times to preserve a one point lead, and the Bulls beat the Knicks in game six to clinch a third straight NBA Finals birth.

In 1992, the Phoenix Suns won 53 games but lost in the second round of the playoffs to Portland. In the following offseason, the Suns made a blockbuster trade to land All-Star Charles Barkley from the Philadelphia 76ers. Phoenix went on to win 62 games, nine more than the previous season. This turnaround was big enough to land the Suns with the number one seed throughout the playoffs, and Barkley was honored as the league MVP. In the playoffs, Phoenix outlasted the Los Angeles Lakers in a surprising five-game series. In the semifinals, the Suns beat the San Antonio Spurs in six games thanks to a game-winning stepback jumper from Barkley. In the Western Conference Finals, Phoenix faced an upstart Seattle SuperSonics team. The series lasted seven games, and Barkley’s monster 44/24 in the last game helped secure the Suns’ first NBA Finals birth since 1976.

Lineups

The Bulls’ starting lineup remained the same in four out of five positions. Now in his fourth season, B.J. Armstrong was the new starting point guard, alongside shooting guard Michael Jordan. All-Star Scottie Pippen started up front at small forward alongside power forward Horace Grant and seasoned center Bill Cartwright.

John Paxson now moved to the bench as the backup guard, and newcomer Trent Tucker served as the fourth guard. Scott Williams continued to function as the backup forward, and Stacey King was now the full-time backup center. Players to see limited time in the NBA Finals include veteran Rodney McCray, Will Perdue, and Darrell Walker.

For the Suns, two-time All-Star Kevin Johnson started at point guard alongside shooting specialist “Thunder” Dan Majerle. Richard Dumas started at small forward in the frontcourt with league MVP Charles Barkley at power forward and Mark West as the starting center.

Off the bench, Phoenix used Danny Ainge as the primary backup guard, and Frank Johnson functioned as the fourth guard. Veteran Tom Chambers served as the third big man off the bench, in front of young center Oliver Miller. Jerrod Mustaf played sparingly in the NBA Finals despite seeing minutes in the regular season.

Game One: Bulls 100, Suns 92

The Bulls jumped out to a 14 point lead after the first quarter, largely thanks to pressure defense and poor shooting by the Suns. Though Phoenix climbed back into the game in the third quarter, Chicago was able to hold on and steal a win on the road. Jordan finished with 31 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 5 steals, Pippen contributed 27 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists, and the other three Bulls starters combined for 36 points. Barkley led the Suns in scoring with 21 points, but it came on a dismal 9/25 shooting. Kevin Johnson also struggled from the field, finishing 4/13 for 11 points. Majerle and Dumas combined for 36 points, but Chicago coasted to an easy game one victory.

Game Two: Bulls 111, Suns 108

In an attempt to tie up the series, Phoenix came out better than the previous game and led by one after the first quarter. The Bulls rallied back and took a six point lead into halftime. The second half was a nip-and-tuck affair, with Chicago holding on to take a 2-0 series lead. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley both finished with 42 points, with the former coming up one assist shy of a triple-double. Grant and Pippen combined for 39 points for Chicago. Ainge helped Phoenix with 20 points off the bench, but sharpshooter Dan Majerle struggled on 4/14 shooting for only 13 points.

Game Three: Suns 129, Bulls 121 (3OT)

Down two games to none, the Suns desperately needed a win to get back in the series. Despite holding a late lead, Chicago fell apart down the stretch and allowed Phoenix to tie the game on a jumper by Majerle. Jordan scored 44 points, but he struggled down the stretch, failing to convert offensively in crucial moments. Barkley, Johnson, and Majerle combined for 77 points (“Thunder” Dan tied an NBA Finals record with six three-pointers). Pippen scored 26 points for the Bulls, but it came on 13/35 shooting. While the Suns had seven players in double-digits, the Bulls only had four. Phoenix kept their composure as the game went to three overtime periods, and they prevailed to win their first of the series.

Game Four: Suns 105, Bulls 111

Michael Jordan exploded in game four, scoring 55 points on 21/37 shooting (his career-high in scoring in the NBA Finals). The Bulls held on down the stretch despite a late charge by the Suns. Phoenix had a chance to tie the game with under a minute, but B.J. Armstrong stole a pass intended for Kevin Johnson. On the ensuing possession, Jordan was fouled by Barkley and still managed to throw in an incredible basket. Pippen and Grant both finished with double-doubles as Chicago went up 3-1 in the series. Barkley finished with a triple-double, and Majerle, Johnson, and Dumas combined for 50 points for the Suns.

Game Five: Suns 108, Bulls 98

The Suns entered game five fighting to stay alive in the series. They jumped out to a 12 point lead after the first quarter behind ten points from rookie small forward Richard Dumas. Chicago responded in the second quarter by cutting the lead to five, but they were unable to finish off the Suns despite 41 points from Michael Jordan. Three Phoenix players (Dumas, Barkley, and Johnson) finished with at least 24 points, and Majerle tallied 12 rebounds and 7 assists despite struggling from the field. Pippen and Paxson were the only other Bulls in double-figures, and the series now returned to Phoenix with Chicago leading 3-2.

Game Six: Bulls 99, Suns 98

The Bulls jumped out to a 9 point lead after the first quarter and managed to control the tempo up until the fourth quarter. In the final period, the Suns scored the first seven points, and it looked as though Chicago might squander a double-digit lead when they trailed 98-94. Jordan scored a lay-up to cut the lead to two, and Majerle’s three-pointer on the other end came up short. With less than thirty seconds left, the Bulls came down on offense looking to tie or take the lead. Horace Grant managed to find a wide open John Paxson, who hit the go-ahead three with 3.9 seconds left. Kevin Johnson was stripped on the other end as the Bulls clinched their third straight championship. Finals MVP Michael Jordan finished with 33/8/7, Pippen contributed 23 points and 12 rebounds, and B.J. Armstrong scored 18 points with four huge 3’s. Majerle, Barkley, and Johnson combined for 61 points, but it came on 41% shooting.

Aftermath

The 1992-93 Bulls became the first team since the 1965-66 Celtics to win three straight titles. However, Michael Jordan’s father was murdered a month after the NBA Finals, prompting the future Hall-of-Famer to shock the world by retiring weeks before the 1994 season. Chicago still won 55 games, but they would lose in a seven game semifinals series to the New York Knicks. Jordan would return from retirement late in the 1995 season, and the Bulls returned to title contention heading into the 1996 season.

The Phoenix Suns missed their best shot at a championship when they lost in the 1993 NBA Finals. They would lose in the playoffs t0 the Houston Rockets in successive seasons, and Charles Barkley was traded in 1996. Though they returned to title contention in the mid-2000’s with MVP Steve Nash, the 1992-93 Suns are still the last Phoenix team to reach the NBA Finals, as they lost in consecutive Western Conference Finals in 2005 and 2006.

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