When Charles Barkley was traded from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Phoenix Suns in 1992, one of the first things he said he loved about the move was that he finally had some teammates to pick up the scoring load when he was struggling. In Philadelphia, he had to do everything, but in Phoenix, he could afford to take a backseat to guys like Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle.
During the season, though, a funny thing happened: the Suns' pecking order began to resemble Barkley's old 76ers teams. Barkley was arguably at the top of his game, taking more shots than he ever took in any other season in his career. Meanwhile, the rest of the Suns' big guns took on lesser roles. Johnson missed half the year with injuries, Majerle became more of a three-point specialist and former star Tom Chambers became a reserve. At the end of the day, the Suns inched closer to being a team of Barkley and a supporting cast. This supporting cast collectively had lethal scoring talent, mind you, but it was still a supporting cast.
It is against this backdrop that we must consider the crisis Barkley and the Suns had to deal with far earlier in the playoffs than originally anticipated. The 1992/93 Los Angeles Lakers were a bad team. There's no other way to put it. They were sub .500 during the year and traded their most versatile player (Sam Perkins) to Seattle in a salary dump. There wasn't really anything they did particularly well. But they had length along the front line, and length along the front line can bother shorter players like Charles Barkley.
In Game 1, Barkley dominated, but with Johnson injured, nobody else stepped up and the Lakers, shockingly, won. In Game 2, Barkley had a bad shooting game, nobody stepped up and the Lakers won again. Suddenly, Barkley was facing the same dilemma he faced in Philadelphia. When he played poorly, nobody picked up the slack. When he played well, he didn't get enough help. Only this time, his opponent wasn't a team with more top-to-bottom talent. It was a mediocre one like the Lakers.
Things started to turn around in the next couple games. Barkley struggled in Game 3, but Richard Dumas stepped up and the Suns did just enough to win and avoid elimination. In Game 4, Barkley dominated, but so did everyone else as the Suns rolled to victory. That left just one game for Barkley to avoid the Catch-22 scenario he specifically looked to avoid when he OK'd the trade to Phoenix.
Did it happen? With Barkley struggling and the Lakers playing nearly a perfect game, the doomsday scenario was staring Barkley right in the face. Luckily, though, his teammates came through in just the nick of time to save him from an embarrassing end to his season.
Pregame: We're live from America West Arena in Phoenix, in its first season then and still going strong today. Dick Enberg and Quinn Buckner are on the call for NBC.
It may have been Mother's Day, but this still feels wrong.
Enberg provides one of his classic "Oooooooooohh MYYYY" calls to kick things off, and Buckner distracts me with his teeth. Hannah Storm reports that Majerle caught some sort of food poisoning at an Arena Football League game and was in the hospital sick the night before. Enberg also reports that Lakers coach Randy Pfund, a former history teacher, was searching for an example of an underdog defeating a favorite to provide for his team. Hey Randy, have you ever heard of the American Revolution?
Johnson, Majerle, rookie Richard Dumas, Barkley and Mark West start for Phoenix. The Lakers start Sedale Threat, Byron Scott, A.C. Green, Elden Campbell and Vlade Divac. James Worthy is their key man off the bench.
11:10: Barkley made his first shot a corner three, and he nails it to give the Suns a 5-0 lead. Buckner, who hung out with Barkley the night before, notes that Barkley wanted to take over the game early and hope his teammates followed. This shot aside, it didn't happen.
10:24: Barkley blocks Campbell at the rim, then Johnson blocks Green on the follow, leading to a Dumas layup. Buckner exclaims, "OH MY GOODNESS," even though Dumas didn't do much more than a simple spin move. Buckner later admits he's never seen Dumas play in person.
9:30: Green was in the lane for nine seconds. I counted. No call.
8:00: A couple stupid turnovers, a couple forced jumpers, and suddenly the Lakers have scored eight straight and lead, 10-9. This is why you don't go for home runs in playoff games. That last sentence is why you shouldn't make cross-sport references.
7:06: Barkley goes coast to coast and pulls up for a layup that hits every part of the rim and drops out. After that three, he's missed three in a row.
6:57: Hey guys, did you know Buckner and Barkley hung out the night before?!
5:43: Campbell stuffs Tom Chambers and Barkley on consecutive possessions. It's a shame NBC sent Buckner and not Bill Walton, because I was looking forward to the "WHERE would the Lakers BE without ELDEN CAMPBELL" call.
5:00: Danny Ainge snaps a 13-0 Lakers run, but then Green zips by everyone on the out of bounds play and gets a dunk. Lakers lead, 17-11. Everyone is waiting for Barkley to take over and he's not obliging. Johnson has been invisible.
4:38: 37-year-old center James Edwards hits a turnaround for the Lakers as 58-year-old Dick Enberg calls him an "old man."
1:14: Worthy strips the ball away from Chambers, then slams it out of bounds off his head for Phoenix's seventh turnover. Enberg, who we've already mentioned is pushing 60 years old, refers to the Lakers' trio of Worthy, Scott and Edwards as a "greybeard unit."
2.1: Barkley finally decides to drive to the basket and draws the foul. His two free throws tie the game and give him his first points since that early three. Despite playing horribly, the Suns are still right there.
11:08: Buckner is correctly amused by Divac's defense here.
"You're seven feet tall. You don't let someone shoot a layup falling away from the basket. Put your hands up! Please!"
10:13: The Lakers go under a screen involving Majerle, which was a pretty terrible idea. Funny thing about Majerle: we think of him as this great three-point shooter, but during the early part of his career, that was his weakness. He shot less than two threes a game until 1992, when he shot 2.8. For the next three years, his attempts were 5.3, 6.3 and 6.7 per game. That's an insane number for someone playing in the mid 1990s. On this play, the Lakers were clearly relying on the old scouting report.
9:48: There's the Lakers relying on the old scouting report again. Suns by four.
8:11: That running left-handed shot by Danny Ainge was the 1993 version of the Kendrick Perkins trade.
6:37: Not a good day for Suns small forwards. Buckner calls Dumas' post defense "terrible," then says there's "no real punch" in anything Cedric Ceballos is trying to do.
5:12: Really awkward exchange just now. First, the backstory: Buckner is about to leave NBC after accepting the Dallas Mavericks' coaching job.
Buckner: "Give the Lakers credit. They just flat-out wanted the ball more that time."
Enberg: "You're talking like a coach who is really going to stress defense in Dallas next year."
Buckner: "Weeeellllll, I'm going to stress a little bit of everything. ... My main thing is effort."
Thanks for clearing that up, Quinn. Buckner, by the way, lasted one year and won just 13 games with the Mavericks.
3:31: Green gets another rebound, pitches it ahead to Worthy and Worthy scores on a turnaround. Lakers regain the lead. It's one of 19 rebounds Green got in the game. For the series, he averaged 14.6 boards per game. His career average is six per game in the regular season and 7.1 per game in the playoffs. Over the summer, the Suns gave Green a big contract hoping he could provide some interior muscle. I remain convinced that only happened because of this series.
2:40: Barkley blows a wide-open lefty layup in transition. He's now 2-9 from the field for the game. One of those field goals was the corner three in the first minute of the game, and the other was a dunk. Really, if it weren't for Majerle (12 points), Phoenix would be screwed. This is the look of a very nervous player.
1:04: Barkley rebounds with two slick passes to Oliver Miller, the second of which was a really low-percentage wrap-around pass in transition that Miller grabs from his waist and scores with a layup. All the credit in the world is given to Barkley for the pass, even though the catch was equally as impressive. Whatever. Stars are stars for a reason.
8.3: Johnson gets a 10-second violation, losing his concentration after the Suns walked the ball up the court. Pretty much sums up the Suns' uneven half. They lead by one, but only two guys -- Majerle and Oliver Miller -- are playing well. Meanwhile, the Lakers keep chhhhanging around, in the immortal words of Teddy KGB.
11:34: Hey guys, did you know Buckner and Barkley hung out the night before?!
10:28: Scott hits a corner three and is trash talking his whole way up the court. Buckner surmises that the Lakers are "having more fun" than the Suns and that the Suns "need to remember they're playing a game." Here's evidence!
7:20: With two free throws, Barkley is finally in double figures.
5:40: Barkley stops, pauses, pump-fakes and misses an 18-foot corner jumper. He's nervous. This facial expression, once again, says it all.
4:58: I remember seeing some NBA blogger somewhere make this comparison already, but seeing Johnson go coast-to-coast in transition and lay it up while jumping off the wrong foot should remind current NBA fans of Russell Westbrook.
3:40: Barkley hits two free throws. He's still not playing well, but his teammates have set him up for a couple easy scores and he has 10 points in the quarter. Phoenix goes back up by six. Barkley appears to be invoking a magic spell to keep Johnson, Majerle and Miller playing at this high of a level.
3:06: Pretty amazing play call by Westphal right there. The Suns start with Johnson, Majerle and Barkley in the same cluster in the right corner. It looks like Barkley is running a pick and roll with Johnson going left, but Johnson declines the screen and heads toward the baseline. Johnson draws all three Lakers to him and Majerle floats to the three-point line for another three. Suns by nine. Enberg starts an "OOOOHHHHHH MY" chant, but forgets the "my" part.
2:34: Negele Knight, a Suns reserve, calls a simultaneous shot-clock violation and first down. It's a bold strategy, Cotton.
1:30: Scott completes one of the most old man fast breaks of all time, fumbling a ball behind his back, picking it up, then missing a layup. Luckily for the Lakers, Miller decided he was a jump-shooter and front-rimmed a 20-footer, leading to a Threat jumper. The Suns' lead drops from 11 to seven.
0:00: End of three, Suns up seven. Barkley has 13 in the quarter, but almost all of those points have come with someone else setting him up.
10:00: The prophecy of Barkley has been realized. He goes out, but Johnson takes over and the Suns don't miss a beat. Suns by 10. Johnson, after having a horrendous series due to lingering knee pain from missing Game 1, has 21 points and 10 assists.
9:34: Pretty big play here - Tony Smith fouls Johnson, the two get entangled, and in an attempt to wrestle himself free, Johnson kicks the air. The officials, having transported themselves to 2011 momentarily, call a technical on Johnson. Pfund, hilariously, calls for Johnson to get ejected. Mind you, he kicked air, not a player. Momentum gets away from Phoenix.
7:37: Why is Frank Johnson in the game for Phoenix?
6:15: Worthy hits a turnaround, and it's a three-point game. Phoenix keeps electing to play Worthy straight up with Majerle, and Worthy keeps making them pay. Honestly, I'd probably play it this way too if I'm Phoenix, but it's still worth pointing out.
6:01: There wasn't a player in the same hemisphere as Frank Johnson on that 15-foot missed jumper. Why is Frank Johnson in the game for Phoenix?
5:12: Frank Johnson grabs a rebound and Westphal doesn't let him dribble before calling timeout. Really meaningful two and a half minutes of action there for Frank.
4:25: Worthy hits over Majerle again. It's a tough call for Westphal. Neither of his true small forwards are ready for this, and Worthy is just turning and shooting over the top before a double team comes. Unless Majerle fronts Worthy, there isn't much he can do.
3:40: Worthy. Three. Tie game.
2:26: You make the call here. Should this be a shot-clock violation.
On the one hand, the red light isn't on. On the other hand, it looks like it's still in Barkley's hands with zero left on the shot clock. It's the slimmest of margins, and it ultimately decides the game. The right call probably would have been to take it away, but this is 1993, so instant replay doesn't exist.
2:05: Good to know Quinn's nickname for Worthy is "J-Dub."
1:39: Barkley is stripped by Campbell, then gets it back and misses well short. Meanwhile, Campbell throws down a putback jam after Barkley forgot to box out again, and the Lakers have the lead.
1:23: Barkley's reverse layup, in order, hits:
- The backboard
- The front rim
- The back rim
- The front of the right side of the rim
- Oliver Miller's hand
- The front of the right side of the rim
- James Worthy's hands after it falls off
1:07: Majerle doesn't step up and Threat zips in for a layup. There is one minute remaining, and the best team in the NBA is down four to the worst team in the playoffs.
58.0: Barkley hits a fadeaway for point No. 28. Imagine if he misses that shot like he's missed it the entire game.
25.9: The Suns force a miss. Johnson tries to play hero, but misses the jumper. It's knocked out of bounds, and the Suns have it. One last chance to tie the game.
13.6: And there it is. Barkley is nowhere to be found on the play, but it doesn't matter. Johnson gets into the middle, but is trapped. He kicks out to Majerle. Majerle dribbles right, somehow plants enough on his left foot from 18 feet away and fades away just enough to prevent Worthy from blocking it. It's an impossible shot, and it goes in. Buckner's "WHAT A SHOT" reaction is apt. Barkley's vision is finally realized. For once, someone else saved his team.
0.0: Byron Scott is semi-open for three. The shot falls pretty fall short. Overtime. Weird play call, considering Worthy wasn't involved at all in the play. Guess there's a reason Pfund lasted just one and three-quarters of a year as a head coach. Buckner says the Lakers "got the play they wanted." Guess there's a reason he lasted just one year as a head coach.
4:38: Layup, Oliver Miller. He's ready for his close-up.
4:03: Putback, Oliver Miller.
3:46: Rebound, Oliver Miller.
3:01: Blocked shot, Oliver Miller.
2:34: Pass denied, then shot altered, Oliver Miller.
1:06: Slam dunk, Oliver Miller. Suns by five.
32.3: Really difficult rebound, Oliver Miller.
31.9: Yup, Dick Enberg just dropped a "Miller time," then followed it up with a "Miller lite" one when referencing Oliver's weight. Enberg's engaging in brilliant product placement before it was cool. That'll pretty much do it. Suns win, 112-104. Miller ends 17 points, 14 rebounds, seven blocked shots and one snub of the gorilla.
Barkley ended with 31 points and 14 rebounds, but shot just 9-23 from the field and needed his teammates to set him up with easy buckets. The real heroes of this game were Johnson (24 points, 13 assists), Majerle (19 points while sick, not to mention the shot that saved the Suns' season) and Miller. Throughout the rest of the playoffs, it was Barkley that carried the Suns in key moments to get them to the NBA Finals. In this game, though, it was everyone else.
One could say that Barkley was only able to dominate later on because he didn't have to be nervous his teammates wouldn't show up. It was a free-wheeling and comfortable Barkley from this point forward.