PHOENIX -- How do you steal an NBA championship? How do you score 12 points in the fourth quarter, blow an eight-point lead, and still win an historic third consecutive championship? How do you get one basket from someone other than Michael Jordan in that fourth quarter and still come away victorious on the road, in Game 6? How do you violate the 24-second shot clock three times in one quarter, fail to score a point for the first 6:09 of the period and still recover when the pressure is almost unbearable? How do you get one point from Horace Grant the whole game, no points from Scottie Pippen in the fourth quarter and beat the raging Phoenix Suns in the deciding game?
Down four points with 40 seconds left, stone cold and reeling, the Chicago Bulls reminded the basketball world why they are champions, threepeat champions. A long, long time ago, Billy Conn was way ahead of heavyweight champion Joe Louis at the end of 12 rounds, then slipped up for about one second and got knocked out. This was the basketball version. The Phoenix Suns were staggered by Jordan's coast-to-coast drive with 38.1 seconds left Sunday, slumped when Dan Majerle shot an airball with 14.4 seconds left, and were knocked out by the one-two combination of John Paxson's three-pointer with 3.2 seconds left and Grant's block of Kevin Johnson's shot just before the buzzer.
"An unusual sequence of events," is the way Coach Phil Jackson described the path to victory.
Until that occurred, Game 7 seemed a certainty. One team was fighting for every loose ball and layup, the other was just trying to end the season. One team was stalking victory with every resource possible, the other was hoping two championships entitled it to a third. The Phoenix Suns were playing, the Chicago Bulls were living off reputation. A long, difficult, sometimes controversial season had left the Bulls teetering. "We were struggling, totally out of sync, no rhythm," Jordan said. "But as bad as we played, we were within distance."
This, ultimately, is the difference between champions and everybody else. If you don't score the knockout, Joe Louis will kill you in the final seconds of the 15th. If you miss, as Frank Johnson did with about 45 seconds left and as Majerle did with 14.4 left, you give champions life.
During the timeout after Majerle's airball, Jackson didn't have much in the way of instructions. The Bulls, by their own admission, didn't have much left. "I told the guys, 'We'll find a way to win. If we just come up with one defensive stop, we'll find a way to win.' "
Let the record show that neither of the critical plays was made by Michael Jordan. For a group of men not long ago known as The Jordanaires, the Bulls do pretty well for themselves. On many levels, playing with Jordan has to be terribly difficult. Sometimes, you watch him work magic for 40 minutes then you have to hit a shot or make a steal or sink a free throw when you've barely worked up a sweat.
This is the tough part of being Michael Jordan's teammate, but something they've learned how to negotiate. On the championship winning play, Jordan started in the backcourt, 90 feet from the basket. He hit Pippen in the frontcourt, and Pippen spotted Grant about five feet from the basket on the left side. Ninety percent of the time, Grant takes that shot.
But only a few possessions earlier, Grant had bobbled a perfect pass from Jordan. A sure layup had turned into a blown opportunity with the Bulls leading by 87-86. "Horace had just missed a layup," Jordan said. "His confidence was shot. It's a credit to Horace for knowing his confidence level at the time and for having the confidence in his teammate."
Or as Grant said: "John Paxson was right there open. What else can you say?"
Paxson is a professional shooter. Spot up and shoot is what he does. It's what he did in the fourth quarter of Game 5 in the Forum to help beat the Lakers for the Bulls' first title two years ago. It's what he did last year in the fourth quarter of Game 6 in Chicago Stadium to help beat Portland for the Bulls' second title.
Grant hit Paxson with a chest pass and Paxson fired in a three-pointer, the Bulls' 10th of the game. The Bulls had a one-point lead. "He's a consummate pro who knows his limitations and has always knocked down the big shots," Jordan said.
What Paxson is to shooting, Grant is to defense. Grant scored the almost nonexistent total of two points the last two games. Nobody doubted him for a second when he said, "Guarding Barkley would wear anybody out." If you can't shoot, you defend. With primary responsibility, Grant helped harass Barkley into missing 11 of 18 shots. This is how you steal a championship.
On the final offensive play for the Suns, K.J. actually drove past Jordan, drove past Grant too, for that matter. But Grant recovered just as K.J. rose to shoot. Block, game over. Mired in one of the most miserable offensive stretches of his career, Grant made the assist that led to the winning basket and blocked the shot that secured the threepeat.
This is not about who plays the best, it's about who wins. The Chicago Bulls, for the third straight year, played the best when it counted, and that's all that counts ultimately. This is not about who has more great players, it's about who has the best team. If a championship and a place in sports history is on the line, and I can pick any five players in the NBA to take a spot-up jumper, Paxson is one of them. If a championship and a place in sports history is on the line and I can pick any forward to defend anybody -- Barkley, K.J., Majerle, whomever -- I want Horace Grant, no matter how many layups he's missed.
You have Paxson shooting a jumper, you have Grant playing defense, you have Pippen grabbing 12 rebounds, you have Michael Jordan screaming at an overwhelmed Scott Williams, "Every single possession is important!" and you've got a chance to win a championship by stealing a game. It's called being resourceful and it's a trait no champion can continue without.
A blue, blue Barkley said afterward that the Suns were in position to win any or all of the four games they lost in this championship series. Point is they didn't. The Bulls won them, three of them on the Suns home floor. "With Michael Jordan, you're a step ahead of everybody else," Jackson said. With his players performing an expanding number of roles, that one step was enough to launch the Bulls to three consecutive titles. And counting.