Sunday, June 20, 2010

June 20, 1993: Setting Suns

PHOENIX - One of the biggest surprises of the 1993 NBA season came from the MVP voting. In a moderate upset, Charles Barkley was named the MVP. Looking at his numbers, and at how well Phoenix played that year, it's not completely surprising that he was picked. Not surprising, that is, until you remember that Michael Jordan was still in the league and was at the absolute peak of his abilities in 1993. Since the Bulls were still dominant, it would have seemed logical to give Jordan another MVP award. The consensus seemed to be that while Barkley was a deserving candidate, he only really won because voters were tired of voting for Jordan.

No matter. They were the two best players in the league that year, and they played on the two best teams. That can't be argued. So it wasn't a surprise when the Bulls and the Suns met in the NBA finals that June. The series was, deservedly, hyped as a battle between MVPs, Barkley vs. Jordan.

As newly minted MVP, Barkley played very well in his first Finals. He averaged 27 points and 13 rebounds a game, peaking with 42 points in Game 2 and a triple-double in Game 4. That series was the pinnacle of what was the best season of Barkley's career, and he showed he was deserving of MVP consideration.

But there was a problem. See, Jordan was as hyper-competitive as it got, and he didn't take too kindly to losing out on the MVP trophy. In Game 1, he scored 31 points with 7 rebounds ... and that was his worst game of the series. He annihilated the Suns in games 2-5, scoring 42, 44, 55, and 41 points, in addition to playing very good defense on the Suns' second-leading scorer, Dan Majerle.

Heading into Game 6 on June 20, the Bulls were up 3 games to 2. Playing at home, Barkley put in another great performance, with 21 points and 17 rebounds, keeping the Suns close. Jordan backed off a bit on his scoring, getting 33 points. In the fourth, with the Bulls offense bogging down, Jordan scored 9 points - the only ones Chicago got until the closing seconds. But it was those closing seconds that surprised everybody. With his team trailing 98-96 with 14 seconds left, Jordan took the inbounds pass in the backcourt, dribbled beyond the half-court stripe, and ... passed. The ball swung around to the Bulls' three-point specialist, John Paxson, and he did exactly what he was supposed to do: he drained the championship-clinching three.

If Jordan's decision to pass was surprising, so was what happened next. In the offseason, Jordan announced his retirement from basketball. Of course, he'd come back two years later, but for a while, it seemed as though his lasting legacy would be the 1993 Finals. And what a legacy it would have been.

(The final play begins at 1:15 of this clip)

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