The Bulls had just one remaining obstacle to overcome for a third consecutive championship. And it came in the form of NBA MVP Charles Barkley and the owners of the best record that season, the Phoenix Suns.
Whereas Chicago had faced a physical, “grind it out” challenge against New York, Phoenix thrived with an up-tempo style of play. Slowing Barkley was obviously a priority, but the Suns had several other capable players in Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle and Richard Dumas. Also, like the Knicks, the Suns held home court advantage.
Unlike the previous series, though, Chicago quickly stole home court advantage, leading by more than 20 in the opener and holding off the Suns for a 100-92 victory. Jordan scored 31, while Pippen added 27 points and nine assists.
Determined not to have a letdown in Game 2, Phoenix came out firing but Jordan led Chicago’s response. The Suns kept within striking distance in the second half but Pippen’s block of Danny Ainge with less than 30 seconds left in the 4th quarter gave the Bulls possession and control of the game. Jordan was spectacular, finishing with 42 points on 18 of 36 shooting to go with 12 rebounds and nine assists, while Pippen recorded a triple-double with 15 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists.
Returning home with a 2-0 lead and three games at the Stadium, Chicago was in control of its destiny with a prime opportunity to win its third straight title in front of its own fans. But the Suns had other things in mind and as a result, Game 3 of the 1993 NBA Finals on June 13 was an epic battle. In the end, it was Phoenix who outlasted Chicago in a 129-121 marathon of a game that went three overtimes.
With the game tied at 103 late in the 4th quarter, Barkley missed a jumper over Grant. With one second left in regulation, Pippen looked to Grant for a tip in that came up just short. Ainge had a shot to win it at the buzzer in the first overtime, but missed. Pippen then failed to connect on a runner that would have won it at end of the second overtime. In the third overtime, the Bulls finally wore out and Suns ran away with the game.
“They won the race that night,” said Pippen, who battled leg cramps but stayed in the game, gutting out a near triple-double with 26 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in 56 minutes.
Pippen wasn’t the only one with a monster stat line that night. Jordan connected on 19 of 43 shots en route to 44 points to go with nine rebounds in 57 minutes. Armstrong recorded 21 points in 58 minutes. For the Suns, Johnson tallied 25 points, nine assists and seven rebounds in a whopping 62 minutes. Majerle scored 28, while Barkley tallied 24 and 19 boards.
Phoenix had successfully come into Chicago and won despite losing their first two games at home. With Game 4 looming, the pressure was on the Bulls to respond to a challenge.
“We knew we could play better and we felt like we had thrown Game 3 away,” said Pippen. “We didn’t perform the way we needed to perform and let too many of their guys get going.”
In one of the all-time great finals performances, Jordan scored 55 points as the Bulls won 111-105 and took a 3-1 lead in the series. Chicago had a chance to close out the series at home in Game 5, but the Suns fought back and recorded a 108-98 victory despite 41 points from Jordan.
“They were a desperate team at that point,” said Pippen of the Suns winning Game 5. “I gave them all the credit. And you can’t forget, they were a very good team all throughout the regular season on the road. They were used to winning in hostile environments.”
Jordan’s scoring output was one of historical levels—42 points in Game 2, 44 in Game 3, 55 in Game 4 and 41 in Game 5; a mark of 45.5 points over those four games when he also averaged nine rebounds and six and a half assists over that stretch.
“It was Michael as usual,” said Pippen of Jordan. “He was always an aggressive scorer and never afraid to shoot the ball. He didn’t believe in sharing the basketball in the sense that, if he was open, it was a good shot. But deservingly so, because he was a great scorer and became a great shooter too.
“He had the unique ability to break a team’s back in a span of two minutes during a game,” added Pippen. “He was so aggressive and he got to the line; before you know it, you look up and you’re down 12 because he just scored 12 in a row on you.”
As much of an influence as Jordan had on the court, he made his presence felt off of it as well. Faced with heading back to the Suns’ home court for at least one game and possibly Game 7 if the Bulls weren’t able to close it out in six, Jordan instructed teammates to pack for only one game before boarding their flight for Phoenix.
“It was something we talked about after our practice that day,” recalled Pippen. “We decided then we were only packing one outfit. That was our mentality and Phil had spoken to us about it. We looked back to see what went wrong in the losses and the mistakes we made. We were on our way to Phoenix to do what we had to do—win a game.”
In Game 6 on June 20, 1993, the Bulls got it going from long range to open the game up 37-28 through a quarter of play. But facing the prospect of elimination, the Suns launched another desperate comeback. The Suns eventually took lead late in a slower paced 4th quarter that featured several shot clock violations by Bulls.
Leading 98-94 with the ball, Phoenix thought it had Chicago on the ropes. But a Suns’ missed shot led to Jordan taking the ball the length of the floor for a layup. In the Suns’ next possession, Majerle hoisted an air ball as the shot clock expired and Pippen claimed possession with the Bulls trailing 98-96.
Jordan inbounded the ball to Armstrong, who returned it to Jordan. Jordan dished to Pippen, who then found Grant on the baseline. Grant kicked it to Paxson, who calmly drilled a three pointer to put Chicago up 99-98. On the ensuing play, Grant blocked Johnson’s runner and the three-peat celebration ensued.
“The play worked just like Phil drew it up,” explained Pippen of Paxson’s shot, a product of Jackson’s “blind pig” set. “The open man was going to take the shot and it was just a matter of where the Suns were going to break down. We were looking to score and it was Pax who ultimately hit the three. It was designed for me to go for a layup if it was there, but Horace’s guy stepped up on me. So I hit Horace, who was very good at the baseline shot. He found Pax and he put us up. We had confidence in whoever was on the floor.”
For a team that had seen Jordan hit countless game-winning shots over the years, it was symbolic of not only Jordan, but the team as a whole, trusting each other. It also provided Paxson, who that season was a reserve after starting in Chicago’s first two championships, with the moment of a lifetime.
“It lifted a lot of weight off our backs,” said Pippen. “For John, it was truly a highlight of his career. He had made a name for himself in the game by then, but he really made his mark with that shot. Looking back at that play, we carved them up. Every player touched the ball and the best shooter got it at the end. He wasn’t the best scorer, but he was the best shooter. He made the shot we needed him to make. We didn’t need a two, we needed a three.”
Paxson’s ability to deliver lifted the Bulls into historic company. Prior to 1993, only the Minneapolis Lakers (1952-54) and Boston Celtics (1959-66) had been able to three-peat. And the historical significance was not lost on Pippen.
“It was great,” said Pippen. “For us, it was making our own mark and trying to do something that hadn’t been done in a long time. It was hard to put it into perspective at the time because we didn’t really dwell on it. But now that we can look back, you see how tough it was to do. It takes staying healthy and keeping a team together. There are a lot of things that can fall apart and it’s not as often teams stick together like that for three seasons in a row.”