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.