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Charles Barkley called it "the greatest basketball game I ever played in." Let it reflect on Barkley that it was an awkward, ugly, scrapping battle, the sort that routinely results when two teams are not given adequate time to travel long distances between games in the National Basketball Association finals--the sort, also, it should be pointed out, that the Bulls have managed to win the last two years. The Bulls have typically marshaled their concentration if not their strength in such situations, and that has usually been enough to win; on this evening they did not. Yet it was as Barkley said, a great game; it would take a bitter and allegiance-blinded sports fan to deny that. But its greater import? That was still up in the air.

So it would not be easy after all.

It had seemed easy from the moment the Bulls seized their spot in the finals with their fifth-game upset of the Knicks in New York and the sixth-game clincher back at home. The Knicks can now be paid their due: they are a team of characters, but not yet of character. Patrick Ewing finally established himself as a leader and a great center. Charles Oakley came close to establishing himself as a team leader, but in the end led them only toward defeat. The self-made all-star John Starks wilted--but didn't crack--under the pressure (the former supermarket bag boy bore too much of a chip on his shoulder to get the groceries all the way out to the car, and dropped them, almost spitefully, in the parking lot). And Doc Rivers, the old pro, the worn-eared, scar-eyed alley cat of a point guard, couldn't do in the twilight of his career what he had never been able to do earlier; one can't be any harsher on him than that. They were a likable team, I admit, but like a close relation they were more likable once they'd gone away.

They played tough defense, but they were not superhuman. Like the championship-era Pistons, they had to pick their moments to turn up the defensive intensity; unlike the Pistons, they didn't seem to know that the fourth quarter is when games are won or lost. In the fifth game at Madison Square Garden, they squandered their defensive episode early, in the second quarter, and the Bulls weathered it and stole a victory in the fourth quarter. Then the Bulls came back home and won behind another monster game by Scottie Pippen.

In the second game, when the Bulls fell behind 2-0, Pippen had argued and been thrown out after being called for palming the ball. In the fifth game, he threw the ball out of bounds when he confused a referee on the wing for a teammate, and all he could do was smile. Somewhere, he had regained the relaxation and poise essential to all great athletes. "Damn the critics," he said with some satisfaction after the series was over. And asked if he had "finally arrived," he responded, "What do you think? I got two rings so I think I arrived some time ago."

The Suns, meanwhile, were running all over the court to beat the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games in the other NBA semifinal. Where the games between the Bulls and the Knicks were played out like chess, only involving real people armed with real weapons, the Suns-Sonics series was a tempest in a teapot, all sound and fury, signfying nothing. The Suns, everyone felt, lacked the fundamentals, the tactical acumen, and the smarts to take on the Bulls. And that's exactly how the series looked--until the third game.

The Bulls won both of the first two games in Phoenix in convincing fashion. They quite chased the Suns off their court in the first game, taking a 20-point lead in the second quarter. The Suns rallied, but the Bulls closed them down, 100-92. The second game was tighter but, if anything, even more convincing. In the second quarter the Bulls executed their offense with such perfection that they made seven shots in a row--most of them either lay-ups or dunks against the Suns' fractured defense--and again held on to win, 111-108, as Michael Jordan hit shots time and again over the Suns' well-muscled but flightless Dan Majerle. Meanwhile, the Bulls played defense while the Suns did not. The Bulls arrived at tactics to minimize Barkley's influence and completely shut down Kevin Johnson. The Suns? Well, let's just say there are no chalkboards allowed on the playground.

Barkley is a favorite of all basketball fans; he's an exuberant overgrown kid on the court and a candid-to-a-fault interview off it. My favorite move of his is when he comes down with a long defensive rebound and breaks out on the dribble. Like a three-year-old with his first basketball, he pounds it right in front of his feet, staggering through traffic and somehow lifting off just enough to squeeze it over the rim for a dunk. Johnson, however, is an agile, flighty point guard, with a penchant for driving into the lane the way a midwesterner dives into the surf--arms up and eyes closed.

B.J. Armstrong, continuing his string of stellar defensive games in the playoffs, had contained Johnson. It had all the looks of an embarrassing series.

Sunday, the Suns came out showing defensive intensity, contesting every pass. But the Bulls ran with them, just as they had to open the second game before puffing away. Jordan hit a three to tie the game at 17, Pippen followed with a 20-footer, and Armstrong drove for a lay-up. One Phoenix basket later, Pippen added a jumper, Jordan followed suit, and then Jordan stripped the Suns' rookie center, Oliver Miller, in the lane and went the distance for an uncontested layup and a 27-19 lead.

That was the high point for the Bulls. They felt the series was over, they were tired from the flight back from Phoenix only two days before, and they coasted--right into a 27-27 tie at the end of the first quarter.

In the second quarter, Pippen looked muddleheaded, Grant was on the bench with three fouls, and it was left to Jordan and Armstrong to carry the offense. Armstrong was superb. On defense, the Bulls were faced with some new wrinkles by the Suns. They finally managed to free Johnson through what Bulls head coach Phil Jackson later called "open-side clear-outs." They isolated him not through screens--the Bulls switch assignments too well for that--but through precision passes to spots on the open floor where Johnson and Armstrong would find themselves alone together. Where Johnson typically drives into the lane, looking to either score or pass off--a tactic the Bulls found easy to stymie--now he drove often down the baseline, where it was harder for the other Bulls to find ways to get over and help and where Johnson found it easier to spot open teammates to pass to. He had six assists and 12 points at the half as the Suns led 58-57.

The amazing thing is that most of the Suns' second-quarter rally came with Barkley on the bench. He had cracked his right elbow in a tumble with a teammate in the second game, and it had to be drained immediately before the third. It was bandaged and packed in a heavy elbow pad. He wasn't his usual beastly self under the boards and he grimaced with every shot, but he played through it, and after that break in the second quarter he played well.

The first five minutes of the second half are one of the critical junctures of a game of basketball, and--aside from the first two games in the New York series--the Bulls have owned it in the playoffs. This was true even on a night when they played poorly overall. Pippen knifed through traffic for a slice-and-dice lay-up on a fast break to lead the charge, and when Jordan followed with a three-pointer off a fast break the Bulls were up six points five and a half minutes into the second half, and seemingly on their way to a blowout sweep. Majerle, however, answered right away with a three of his own, and the Bulls could not regain the momentum. Majerle hit a pair of threes in the final minute to help give the Suns a one-point lead through three quarters.

Giving Jordan, Pippen, and Horace Grant their final rests of the game, Jackson watched helplessly as the second team let the Suns run out to a double-digit lead midway through the fourth quarter. Then Jackson sent in Jordan, Armstrong, Pippen, Grant, and Scott Williams, the lumbering backup center who had played particularly well in the first two games. He came up here with an inadvertent steal--simply had his arm out in a passing lane--and Pippen converted it into a thunderous dunk to bring the Bulls to 99-90. Majerle finally threw up an air ball and Armstrong hit a three on the fast break, making it 101-94. Johnson, who had found his lost range from outside in the second half, finally missed an open shot and Jordan hit a 15-foot jumper--101-96.

The game tightened. The Bulls got the ball back but the Suns finally were playing defense. The shot clock was down to six seconds. The Bulls had to inbound the ball but Pippen couldn't get it in and called a timeout. The Suns were using their five men to guard the Bulls' four men on the floor. After the break, the resourceful Pippen bounced the ball off the back of the Suns' Danny Ainge, picked it up, and went in for the slam dunk--101-98. That was it, we thought; the Suns would go down. Grant tipped in a Jordan miss--101-100. Barkley stopped the bleeding with a lay-up, but Jordan drove the baseline and passed into the lane for Grant, who was fouled on a dunk and made the shot to tie the score at 103.

The Bulls had come from 11 down with a 15-4 run, but that's where things ended in regulation. The last 93 seconds were scoreless as both teams stumbled, exhausted.

Pippen won the opening overtime jump ball against the Suns' center, Mark West, and hit an 18-footer to give the Bulls a lead. Barkley answered with a pair of free throws. Jordan, in the midst of an awful shooting slump--he made 2 of 14 shots in the fourth quarter and first overtime--finally hit one in the lane as his defender, Johnson, fell down trying to draw a foul. "My shooting down the stretch was more or less due to my legs," he later said. But the Suns' Tom Chambers, off the bench with a pair of relatively fresh legs, drove for the tying lay-up, and the first overtime ended at 107.

The final play of the frame was a feverish skirmish under the Phoenix basket with the Suns unable to convert. Pippen--dehydrated, no doubt, from the trip and the game--fell to the floor with a cramp in his right leg. They carried him off the court and pounded water down him and iced the leg. The Bulls opened the second overtime at a distinct disadvantage.

But when Pippen rose from the bench 90 seconds into the frame, neither team had scored. Once in, Pippen fed Williams in the lane for a basket and Jordan down low for a lay-up. The Bulls were up four with two minutes to go.

Majerle drove for a lay-up, making it 111-109. Jordan, however, suddenly revived with a tough turnaround jumper--lead back to four. Barkley hit one of two free throws and then Jordan was fouled with 40 seconds to play. He could have made the lead five, but likewise hit only one of two. Johnson drove the lane and passed out to an open Barkley, who hit the dinky jumper as if he had been threading needles all his life. After a Pippen air ball, Majerle again got the ball near the three-point line, faked the shot, stepped in around the Bulls defender, and hit an 18-footer--tied at 114. At the buzzer, Pippen got the ball on the wing, deked to the middle, drove down the side, and put a shot off the glass.

It caromed hard off the front of the rim--triple overtime.

If the shot drops, it's one of the great games in Chicago sports history and Bulls fans finally have something to draw on Knicks fans when they talk of Willis Reed limping out of the locker room in the NBA finals. As it is, it's the greatest game in the history of Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns.

The crowd seemed as spent as the players by this time. Barkley won the jump ball over Pippen, but the Suns still couldn't gain the lead. Pippen fed Williams for another lay-up to put the Bulls in front. Johnson hit a 17-foot shot over Jordan, who was now defending him, but Jordan responded in kind--118-116. Then, however, Majerle hit a three-point shot from Lake County, Indiana, to give the Suns their first lead since the fourth quarter.

The Bulls were unable to answer. Pippen lost the handle on the ball and hurled it straight up into the air; that turned into a Barkley dunk. Grant fouled out and was replaced by Stacey King. He came down with a clutch rebound, then threw it straight to Barkley, lurking under the basket between King and Jordan. Barkley jammed it for a five-point lead. The outcome from there was academic.

"Well, well, well," smiled Barkley, his elbow wrapped in ice, as he sat down in the interview room afterward. Johnson--who set a playoff record by playing the first 62 minutes of the game--soon followed him, carrying a can of Gatorade, an almost-gone package of Fig Newtons, and a score sheet. Barkley pulled the score sheet over as Johnson answered a question.

"Damn, Michael Jordan shot the ball 43 times!" Barkley gushed. "He ought to be icing his elbow, too."

Forty-three shots, only 19 good, and only six assists for Jordan. Pippen sat answering questions in the locker room in a soft voice, having made only 12 of 35. Jordan came to the interview room and sat down. Asked about Barkley's comment about the greatest game he had ever played in, Jordan smiled and said, "I'm not gonna remember the best game I ever played in as a loss."

It had either been the beginning of a great series or simply one great game in a mismatch. Jordan, tired, spent, humbled, nevertheless left no doubt what he intended to make it.

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