The 1993 Phoenix Suns were a team looking to take the proverbial next step and were willing to make big changes to get what they wanted. Over the previous four years, under the coaching direction of Cotton Fitzsimmons, the Suns had been good. From 1989-92, they won 50-plus games and got into the conference finals a couple times. But they hadn’t reached the NBA Finals since 1976 and had never won a championship. The ’93 Suns rolled the dice on a big move that translated into the franchise’s best season.
Charles Barkley was an unhappy warrior in Philadelphia and wanted out. The Suns traded a package of players headlined by Jeff Hornacek, one of their most productive contributors in order to get Sir Charles. They added 33-year-old Danny Ainge, a veteran of the Boston Celtics best teams in the 1980s, to get some championship savvy.
And though coaching wasn’t the problem, there was a change there too. Fitzsimmons stepped down and moved to the front office. Paul Westhead, who had overseen the supercharged college offenses at Loyola Marymount in the most recent seasons was brought on.
Under Westhead and led by Barkley, the Suns became an offensive machine. Seven players averaged in double figures. They led the league in scoring, both in total points and in offensive efficiency. Barkley averaged 26 points/12 rebounds/5 assists per game and won the MVP award.
Kevin Johnson ran the show and averaged 16ppg, along with eight assists. Dan Majerle knocked down 17 a night and could rebound and distribute. Richard Dumas was good for 16 points/5 rebounds. Ainge, veteran forward Tom Chambers and up-and-coming forward Cedric Ceballos rounded out the scorers. And if you wanted some rebounding help off the bench? Oliver Miller and Mark West combined for eleven boards a game.
Portland had won the Western Conference in both 1990 and 1992 and a trip north did not go well for Phoenix. They lost 100-89 in the second game of the year. They also lost a decisive 128-111 game at the two-time defending champion Chicago Bulls. But the Suns were consistent everywhere else and by Christmas, the record was 18-4.
The pattern continued through January. Phoenix split two games with Seattle, another strong contender in the West and lost games to Eastern challengers New York and Cleveland. But the Suns got a big 106-104 win at Houston, who would end up the 2-seed in the West. And Phoenix continued to win the games they were supposed to, extending the record to 31-8.
The beat rolled on in February. The Suns knocked off Utah and San Antonio, both playoff-bound. They lost to Seattle, Houston and Cleveland, while taking care of business elsewhere. The Suns were 40-12 when March opened and the best record in the league was squarely in their sights.
On St. Patrick’s Day Night, Phoenix delivered a statement win over Portland, 129-11. Then they crushed the Knicks by thirty and squeaked out a win at Chicago. An eleven-game win streak helped the Suns clear the field in the West by eleven games. The final 62-20 record was two games better than New York and five up on Chicago. Now it was playoff time.
The Los Angeles Lakers were no longer the Showtime Dynasty that had ruled the West in the 1980s. The ’93 version of the Lakers still had veteran holdovers in A.C. Green, James Worthy and Byron Scott, who were all productive, if not spectacular. But post-Magic Johnson, the best player was now Sedale Threatt, who averaged 15ppg. Center Vlade Divac was good—13 points/9 rebounds—but no Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Depth was also lacking, as the Lakers had to slip into the playoffs with a 39-43 record.
But they certainly didn’t go quietly. Barkley came ready to play in Game 1, dropping 34 points, but he was the only one for Phoenix. LA shot 54%, Threatt poured in 35 and the Lakers stole homecourt advantage right out the chute with a 107-103.
Game 2 was a defensive affair and the Phoenix offense completely went AWOL in the fourth quarter, scoring only eleven points and allowing Los Angeles to grab an 86-81 win. At a time when the first round was only a best-of-five, the Suns were suddenly staring elimination in the face as they went on the road.
The depth factor came into play in Game 3. Miller, Ainge and Ceballos combined to shoot 12-for-15 and that efficiency saved the Suns in a 107-102 win. With confidence restored, the Suns pulled away in the third quarter of Game 4 for an easy 101-86 win. Barkley got back on track with 28 points/11 rebounds, while Miller continued to deliver, with 16/8 off the bench.
Game 5 was a thriller. Barkley did not shoot well, but he brought plenty of effort, going for 31/14. Johnson was magnificent, dishing thirteen assists and pumping in 24 points. And the unheralded Miller played the game of his life, going for 17/14. The rebounding of Barkley and Miller was the difference in a 112-104 overtime win.
The San Antonio Spurs were waiting in the second round. The Spurs made an early coaching change, bringing on John Lucas and that had sparked the team after a slow start. There was no shortage of talent either. David Robinson was holding down the center spot and two solid scorers, Sean Elliot and Dale Ellis were on the wings.
Phoenix finally played a home game worthy of a title favorite. They grabbed a 32-19 lead after the first quarter of Game 1. Even with Barkley having a terrible 5-for-21 shooting night, the Suns got 47 combined from Johnson and Dumas in the 98-89 win.
Another strong start in Game 2 staked the Suns to a 14-point lead and this time was Barkley was dialed in. He went for 35/10 and made up for a general lack of rebounding by everyone else in the 109-103 win.
The shooting touch did not travel with Phoenix when the series went to San Antonio. They struggled to 41 percent shooting both Games 3 & 4. Johnson’s 26 points/8 assists performance in the fourth game was the only noteworthy individual effort. Decisive losses, 111-96 and 117-103 sent the series back to Phoenix all even.
Momentum continued to go against the Suns in Game 5 and they trailed by five going into the fourth quarter. But this time they were shooting the ball well and would end up hitting 60 percent on the night. Barkley did what a great player does and his 36/12 helped the Suns assert themselves down the stretch and get a needed 109-97 win.
Sir Charles did it one more time on the road in Game 6. He crashed the boards for 21 rebounds. He scored 28 points. And the Suns were at their best in the fourth quarter, turning a seven-point deficit into a 102-100 series-clinching win.
Seattle had come from the 3-seed to reach the conference finals, outlasting Houston in a seven-game battle in the second round. The Sonics had also gone the distance in the first round, needing all five games to get past Utah. Seattle was led by its forwards, Shawn Kemp (18/10 and Derrick McKey (14ppg). Veteran guard Ricky Pierce poured in 18ppg and a 24-year-old point guard named Gary Payton was coming into his own. The Sonics had won 55 games and were looking for their first Finals appearance sine the 1979 championship season.
Balance was the key for Phoenix in Game 1. Ceballos scored 21 to lead the way, while Barkley and Miller did the dirty work in combining for 24 rebounds. Strong defense limited Seattle to 41 percent shooting and the Suns grabbed a comfortable 105-91 win.
With Barkley and Majerle combining for 53/20 in Game 2, the Suns were up six points after three quarters and looking to assert control of the series. But their defense melted down, allowed 33 points in the fourth quarter and the 103-99 loss shifted homecourt advantage the Sonics way.
Phoenix immediately took it back in Game 3 with a lot of help from their excellent bench. Ceballos’ 14 points was the key to a 45-11 edge in bench scoring. A game that was tied in the fourth quarter ended up a 104-97 win for the Suns. With homecourt reclaimed, Phoenix effectively mailed in Game 4, being decisively outrebounded and only Barkley playing well in a 120-101 loss.
Both teams shot the ball well in Game 5, hitting 54 percent, but this time the rebounding energy shifted back to the Suns. They won this battle 42-25. Barkley played his best game of the postseason thus far, with a stunning 43 points/15 rebounds/10 assists. Majerle poured in 34. Phoenix won it 120-114 and was one win from the Finals.
That win didn’t come on the road in Game 6. The Sonics played with the appropriate urgency, won the rebounding battle and limited the Suns to 43 percent shooting. The 118-102 final sent the series back to Phoenix for a decisive Game 7.
Barkley was not going to let his first real shot at the NBA Finals get away, particularly not with his golfing buddy Michael Jordan and the Bulls awaiting. Barkley’s 44 points/24 rebound game is one of the most electrifying big-game performances in NBA history. Johnson added 22 points. The Suns only shot 42 percent and didn’t have good balance. But they won the rebounding battle 46-31.
Essentially it boils down to this—Charles Barkley, still maligned today for not winning a championship, put the Phoenix Suns on his back and personally dragged them into the NBA Finals.
But when it comes to one man putting a team on his back, no one is going to match Michael Jordan. The Bulls had gotten a big road win in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals to get past the Knicks. And Chicago immediately took away homecourt advantage from Phoenix in the 1993 NBA Finals.
Jordan’s 33 points led the way in Game 1, while Barkley only shot 9-for 25. The Suns lost 100-92. The hole got bigger in Game 2. While both Jordan and Barkley went for 42 points, Johnson played poorly, Majerle struggled and Phoenix lost 111-108.
From 1985-2013, the NBA Finals used a 2-3-2 scheduling format and there was zero reason to expect this series to get back to Phoenix. But Barkley and his boys didn’t fold up. Charles, KJ and Majerle combined for 77/19 and their balance overcame Jordan’s 44 points. It took three overtimes, but the Suns won 129-121. Ironically, the last time Phoenix had been in the Finals in 1976, they had played a legendary triple-OT game in the old Boston Garden.
Barkley kept rolling in Game 4, going for 32/12, and Jordan still didn’t get a ton of help. But there’s a reason Jordan is widely regarded as the best of all-time and his 55-point explosion was too much to overcome in a 111-105 loss.
The city of Chicago was ready to celebrate in Game 5, but Phoenix put a damper on the festivities. They rebounded like a team on the brink, enjoying a 45-35 edge behind Majerle’s twelve boards. Barkley hit 24, while Johnson and Dumas went for 25 apiece. With a 108-98 win, the Suns had—to most everyone’s astonishment—taken this series back west and made it interesting again.
On a late Sunday afternoon, Phoenix looked poised to make the Finals even more interesting. They got 21/17 from Barkley, 21/8 from Majerle and led 98-94 late in the game. But they only shot 39 percent and missed six of seven shots with a chance to close it out.
If you left the door open for these Bulls, they’ll barrel through it and that’s what happened. A three-pointer by John Paxson with three seconds left gave Chicago a 99-98 win and broke hearts across the American Southwest.
There was still no shame in losing to Michael Jordan in this era and 1993 had been a great year for Barkley and the Suns. The unfortunate part for the franchise is that this is where it ended. When Jordan temporarily retired for the next couple years, it was Houston that stepped into the void. Phoenix has not been back to the Finals since 1993. They’ve only made the conference finals three times. And they haven’t even made the playoffs since 2010.