In part II of Scott Howard's look back at the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns, the team takes their 62-20 regular season record to the playoffs.
If you missed Part 1 of my look back at the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns as they are up for induction into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame then you need the check here.
Following their 62-20 regular season, the Suns came into the playoffs as the best team in the NBA and with a very real shot at their first NBA title in franchise history.
Guaranteeing Victory Against the Lakers:
The history of Suns and Lakers in the playoffs has been covered by this writer before but to sum it up, to this point in the rivalry the Lakers had taken the first six series although the Suns had won the last get together in 1990. The difference this time around was that L.A. wasn't exactly a strong opponent.
Los Angeles was in its second year without Magic Johnson and the roster headed by James Worthy, Vlade Divac and A.C. Green grabbed just 39 wins and snuck into the playoffs as the eight seed. That and the fact that the Suns swept L.A. in the regular season for the first time ever set up Phoenix to be pretty confident in their ability to roll over the Lakers.
Imagine the surprise of the Suns when the Lakers came into America West Arena and took Game 1 behind 35 points from Sedale Threatt. But the team probably wasn't too deterred, KJ had missed the game due to injury while Dan Majerle shot a putrid 4 of 15 from the field and 0 of 6 from three.
Game 2 didn't get any better. With KJ back in the fold playing 44 minutes the Suns went into the 4th quarter with a five-point lead. What followed was an 11-point quarter, a loss and an 0-2 home hole.
Through those first two games, the Suns - who had led the NBA in three-point field goals - had hit just 2 of their 19 attempts. Most rookie head coaches would probably have been shell shocked...Paul Westphal was not most rookie head coaches. Following the second loss, Westphal (at the 2:05 mark of the below video) boldly informed the press that the Suns would win the next three and the series.
Inspired by Westphal's words, the Suns stormed into L.A. and took Game 3 behind 27 from Charles Barkley and followed that up with a 101-86 Game 4 blowout to even the series. To prove that the Suns have been a bit of a live by the three die by the three team since the inception of the shot - they hit 10 of 23 from long range in the two wins.
Back in Phoenix the Suns looked primed to finish off the Lakers in a Sunday afternoon showdown. When the Suns took a 7-point lead into the 4th quarter it looked like a certainty. Yet the Lakers rallied and forced overtime, fortunately overtime is where Oliver Miller took over.
The somewhat obese rookie put up nine points, five rebounds and a blocked shot - IN THE OVERTIME PERIOD (he went 17/14 for the game) to lead the Suns to a 112-104 win and a series victory. Game. Set. Match.
Barkley Buries San Antonio:
Now that the Lakers were out of the way, the Suns set up to take on the 5th seed Spurs who had scored a mild upset of the Portland Trail Blazers. Though the teams had met the previous season, San Antonio and Phoenix didn't have quite the playoff rivalry they would develop in the next decade.
In the first game of the series, the Suns cruised to a 98-89 win behind 25 from KJ and 22 from Richard Dumas on an efficient nine of 12 shooting. At this point in the playoffs Dumas had become such a consistent threat that he had effectively driven Cedric Ceballos from the rotation.
Game 2 was more of the same as the Suns jumped out to an early lead and hung on for a win. The future MVP Barkley was the primary scorer this time dropping 35 on the Spurs.
What probably surprised the Suns was the beatings they took when they returned to San Antonio with their two-game lead. Whether the Suns had just rested on their laurels or were shaken at the thought of HemisFair Arena - San Antonio won their two games by 15 and 14 points respectively to tie things up. David Robinson exploded for 36 points and 16 rebounds in Game 4 - including 23 free throw attempts.
Returning to Phoenix in Game 5 was all the Suns needed to take the series lead back as a 31-14 4th quarter gave them a 12-point win and put them on the brink of the Western Conference Finals.
It was in Game 6 that Charles Barkley delivered one of the most famous shots in Suns history. Though he had grabbed 21 rebounds, Barkley was just 9/23 from the field when he took David Robinson one on one and drilled a 20-foot shot with 1.8 seconds remaining to seal the series.
Seven Game Classic Against Seattle:
The Lakers didn't have the talent to hang with the Suns and the Spurs didn't have the necessary depth - the Sonics had both. They could also play some pretty solid defense - ranking 4th in the NBA in points per game against on their way to 55 wins.
Prior to Game 1 of the series Charles Barkley collected his Most Valuable Player award - the first in Suns history - but then went on to lay a bit of an egg in the game, scoring only 12 points on 6/14 shooting. Fortunately Coach Westphal made the wise move to re-insert Cedric Ceballos into the starting lineup and the future MC delivered a game-high 21 points in a 14-point Suns win.
Seattle proved the Suns would be in for a war in Game 2 when they rallied from a six-point third quarter deficit to beat the Suns 103-99 on their home floor. What proved costly for the Suns in this game was 15 missed free throws - including five from Kevin Johnson.
With the series tied at a game a piece momentum seemed to be shifting to Seattle, but the Suns were having little of that. Though Ricky Pierce pumped in 28 for Seattle, the Suns had seven players score in double figures - including Frank Johnson who probably did so for the first time since Jimmy Carter was president - to take back home court advantage.
Seattle took care of business in Game 4 to tie the series again and set the stage for a best of 3 for the Western Conference title.
The teams protected their respective home courts as the Suns won Game 5 behind 43 from Charles Barkley as part of a triple-double and 34 from Majerle, who hit an NBA record 8 threes in the game, only to see Seattle roll on their home court in Game 6 after getting 22/15 from Shawn Kemp.
The biggest blow for the Suns in Game 6 was a broken foot suffered by Cedric Ceballos that would knock him out of the remainder of the playoffs.
Game 7s are apparently when stars set themselves apart and Charles Barkley was no different. With the Suns season on the line, Barkley dumped in 44 points and grabbed 24 rebounds to earn his MVP and a Western Conference Championship.
I'm sure any Sonics fan (do they still exist?) would point out that the Suns attempted 64 free throws to Seattle's 36 but I'll respond to that by saying...we won!
For just the second time in 25 season the Suns were Western Conference Champions.
Michael Jordan Murders Destiny:
By the 1993 NBA Finals the entire universe was familiar with Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls. Jordan drew a great deal of criticism in the early part of his career for being a bit of a one man show but Chicago came into this series as the two-time defending NBA Champions and well - just a force to be reckoned with.
Chicago effectively yawned their way to 57 regular season wins before turning up the heat in the playoffs. They swept the Hawks in the first round and for good measure did the same to their constant foil Cleveland in the second round. The Knicks provided a somewhat stiffer test but after New York won the first two games at Madison Square Garden the Bulls woke up and won the next four games relatively comfortably.
After the first two games of the series it was readily apparent who was the team with NBA Finals experience and who was the Phoenix Suns. The Suns had home court advantage yet in the first quarter of their first Finals since 1976 they were basically punched in the face by the Bulls and trailed by 14. Phoenix did their best to put up a fight but could not overcome a 9/25 stink bomb from Barkley or the relative disappearance of Kevin Johnson (5 turnovers, 2 assists, 11 points).
The second quarter was the difference in Game 2 - well that and Michael Jordan dropping 42 points. Barkley actually managed to match Jordan's 42 but KJ was still a ghost (2/8, 4 points on his way to fouling out) and Dan Majerle made just 4/14 shots. The Bulls won again and the Suns were down 0-2 with the next three at Chicago Stadium. Bad News Bears.
Game 3 of the 1993 NBA Finals is the stuff of legend. Each team played even for the majority of the game, never getting much space on the other team, and the game headed for overtime. In the first overtime period the tired teams managed just four points a piece and the result was a second overtime.
In the second overtime period the Suns actually trailed by 4 with around 30 seconds left but managed to fight back and send the game to a third overtime. The third overtime finally saw the Suns break through as they won the heavyweight battle 129-121.
Kevin Johnson finally broke through in Game 3, putting in 25 points and 9 assists in an NBA record 62 minutes. Jordan was his normal self - scoring a pedestrian 44 points.
Finally having some life in the series, the Suns had to be feeling good about themselves heading into Game 4. Michael Jordan didn't seem to like the idea of that. His Airness hit 21 of his 37 shot attempts and exploded for 55 points in a 111-105 win. Most of the Suns key players actually performed quite well in the game - they were just flat out Jordan'd.
Heading into Game 5, Chicago had their first chance to close out the series and could do it on their home floor for the second straight year. The Suns entered the game carrying the rallying point of "Save the City" - Barkley and company's way of saying they wanted to prevent a Chicago riot that was sure to result from a Bulls victory.
This time the Suns were actually able to overcome a huge 41-point performance from Jordan due to 25 and 24 from KJ and Barkley respectively and a 25-point breakout game from Richard Dumas. The rookie forward put in the 25 on 12/14 shooting and in just 30 minutes. This would be the absolute peak of his career and the last good game of his NBA career.
With the series shifting back to Phoenix for the final two games, the Suns had something they didn't have during Game 1 and Game 2 - an absolute belief that they could beat the Bulls. Chicago again jumped out to a large first quarter lead and took a 11-point lead in the third quarter.
Phoenix was able to rally to take a 98-94 lead with just over 2 minutes left in the game - but they couldn't get another point. The 4 point lead held all the way to 38 seconds left when Michael Jordan soared in for a layup - the last of his 33 points.
As most Suns fans probably have committed to memory at this point, Scottie Pippen drove the lane, passed to Horace Grant on the short corner and Grant kicked to a wide open John Paxson who hit a three to give Chicago a 99-98 lead. Danny Ainge had been covering Paxson, but left him to help on the driving Pippen and then shifted to Grant. Gut punch.
Kevin Johnson attempted a runner from the free throw line but it was swatted away by Grant. Series over. Hearts broken. I'm still sick watching this video. Join me in the pain.
Jordan was obviously the Finals MVP as he averaged 41 points per game for the 6 game series.
There have been two occasions in my time watching the Suns where an individual player has proved to me that there is no such thing as destiny. One was Kobe Bryant in the 2010 Western Conference Finals where if he had even played just All-Star level basketball the Suns may have been able to win the series - the other was the 1993 Finals. Michael Jordan >> Destiny. All day, every day.
Despite losing the series, Suns fans turned out in droves to celebrate the team. 6 days after the conclusion of the Finals, 300,000 Suns fans braved the Phoenix summer heat to line the roads of downtown for a parade. Think about that - 300,000 people showed up for a parade when the team lost. Can't imagine too many cities pulling that off.
Following the loss to Chicago a few changes were afoot for the Suns. After surviving what would become an annual retirement threat from Charles Barkley - the Suns opted to bolster their front court by signing A.C. Green away from Los Angeles and Joe Kleine from Boston.
Obviously not all the members of the previous team came back as Tom Chambers took off for Utah, but the real blow happened when Richard Dumas - after signing a long term contract extension in July of 1993 - was again suspended for drug use. Sadly Dumas would never be a factor in an NBA uniform again.
Though Michael Jordan had retired, those 93-94 Suns weren't able to capitalize as they lost to the Rockets in 7 games in the Western Conference Semifinals.
The roster churned some more the next year as Danny Manning, Wayman Tisdale, Wesley Person and Danny Schayes joined the fight for a ring while Ced Ceballos, Oliver Miller, and Mark West were shown the door. Fan favorite Elliot "Socks" Perry played a significant role - actually starting more games than the injured Kevin Johnson.
Unfortunately the fate that awaited the 1994-95 Suns was the same as the previous incarnation and the team again fell to the Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals in 7 games.
Faced with attempting to get by Olajuwon and not feeling the two headed non-monster of Schayes/Kleine was enough, the organization decided to get creative and deal for another center. This search led to Hot Rod Williams and the cost was Dan Majerle. Suffice it to say, the 1995-96 Suns were never a threat.
A 14-19 start cost Paul Westphal his job - he was replaced by the man that preceded him, Cotton Fitzsimmons - and the team limped to a 41-41 record and a first round elimination at the hands of the Spurs.
Charles Barkley was dealt to Houston prior to the start of the next season and the era was officially at an end.
Where are they now?
For me an interesting mark of how significant that team was to the city of Phoenix is the sheer volume of players from that squad that are or were still around the organization following their retirements.
Well off that roster an impressive seven players either held or are currently holding jobs with the Suns:
- Dan Majerle - Suns assistant coach. Majerle's Sports Grill restaurants have expanded to three locations with a fourth on the way.
- Tom Chambers - co-hosts Suns pregame/halftime shows for TV broadcasts
- Cedric Ceballos - US Airways center in-game MC
- Mark West - Suns Vice President of Player Programs
- Tim Kempton - Suns radio color analyst
- Frank Johnson - former Suns head coach (2001-2004)
- Danny Ainge - former Suns head coach (1996-2000)
Most of those guys - and even the other guys who weren't involved with the team after their retirement are still community legends. Barkley, Majerle, Chambers and KJ have all since entered the Suns Ring of Honor - joining their head coach and then-athletic trainer Joe Proski.
This is for a team that lost in the NBA Finals. Can you imagine what it will be like when the team is actually able to WIN a championship? Those guys will never pay for another drink or meal in the Valley again.
Winning it all or not - the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns were one of the more special groups I can ever remember in my years of watching sports. They gave me some of my most cherished sports memories and for that I'll never be able to forget them.