Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
ESPN debuted ‘The Last Dance’ on Sunday evening to the delight of a nation without sports. It wouldn’t be the story of the Bulls without the infamous broken play in 1993 when Danny Ainge left John Paxson for a clinching three-pointer. Is that the moment you wish the Suns had back, or is it when Amare and Diaw left the bench in 2007?
History can be cruel. If you are a Suns fan, it can be down right depressing. Many fleeting moments have occurred during the history of the franchise, and the “would you rather” game is filled with “what if’s” and “could have’s”.
What if Phoenix had called ‘heads’ in 1969? What if the Paul Silas’ timeout was granted? What if the Suns traded Amare on draft night for Stephen Curry’s draft right? Unfortunately, the list goes on and on, with “near misses” and “almost’s” scribbled throughout the annals of Suns lore.
‘The Last Dance’, ESPN’s 10 part docu-series about the final season of the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls, is the first consumable television sporting event to occur since COVID-19 shut the doors to arenas and locked the gates at stadiums. Millions of excited viewers tuned in to watch parts 1 and 2 of the exclusive never-before-seen footage about the ’97-’98 Chicago Bulls.
It only took mere minutes until Suns fans were reminded of one of the darkest days in our past.
Pippen, to Grant, to Paxson. Finals? Over.
In my previous ‘would you rather’ article I asked simply would you rather the Suns brought back the ‘93 sunburst jersey’s or release a new set of permanent uniforms? Nothing crazy, no heart strings plucked, no devastating childhood memories re-imagined.
My podcast, Suns JAM Session, asked for Suns based ‘would you rather’ questions a couple of weeks back, and @SoSaysJ, host of the Fanning the Flames podcast (both on the Bright Side network) posed the following:
Would you rather Amare and Boris not leave the bench or Ainge not leave Paxson?
— Justin (@SoSaysJ) March 31, 2020
Given the fact that the entire world watched to see how the Suns lost in 1993 on Paxson’s shot, I thought now would be a good time to delve into this questions. If you are new to these heartbreaking moments (you lucky bastard), have no fear, I’ll play both out before you. From there, you can decide.
Would you rather Danny Ainge has stayed on John Paxson in Game 6 on the 1993 NBA Finals or Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw stayed on the bench in Game 4 of the 2007 Western Conference Semifinals?
The Case for Amare and Diaw Sitting Down:
That ’06-’07 Phoenix Suns squad was great. While the ’04-’05 team had surprised the league with their faced paced, seven-seconds-or-less style, the ’06-’07 team was considered by many to be more complete. The team finished the regular season 61-21, good enough for the 2nd best record in the NBA (behind on Dallas), and was primed to make another deep run into the playoffs. When Dallas was shocked in the first round, losing 4-2 to the #8 seed Golden State Warriors (Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Stephen Jackson…those were fun teams to watch), it seemed that the Suns would have a cake walk to the Finals.
Only one thing truly stood in their way. The San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs had bounced the Suns out of the playoffs in the Western Conference Finals two years prior, and did so in such a fashion that Suns GM Bryan Colangelo decided to change their revolutionary lineup in an effort to match the Spurs’ physicality. Gone were Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson, and in were Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, and Kurt Thomas.
And the 2007 Western Conference Semifinals were physical.
The Spurs, who earned the #3 seed, came into the series ready to slow the Phoenix offense down by any means necessary. Bruce Bowen was accused of kicking Amare in Game 2 and kneeing Nash in his nether regions in Game 3. The Suns felt the NBA was letting the Spurs off lightly, as Bowen was not suspended for either of his infractions.
Entering Game 4, the Spurs were up in the series 2-1, having split the first two games in Phoenix and winning the first on their home floor.
The game continued the bruising theme set forth in previous engagements, as the Spurs bench cleared early in the 3rd quarter following a Francisco Elson dunk on James Jones. Duncan had allegedly left the bench, as did Bowen, who was urging Duncan to retreat to their seats.
With 24.9 seconds left, and the Suns leading 100-97, Manu Ginobili misses a layup. Then all hell breaks loose:
- Leoandro Barbosa retrieves the rebound and passes it to Steve Nash near mid-court.
- Robert Horry, who knows that he needs to foul, hip checks Steve Nash into the scorers table. Nash is sent flailing through the air. Raja Bell is first on the scene to confront Horry.
- Boris Diaw and Amare Stoudemire leave the bench. Amare is walking aggressively, although they are both headed towards a dazed Nash, who is still on the ground, arms in the air.
- Horry gets a flagrant foul 2 and is tossed from the game; Nash goes 1-2 from the line.
- The Suns win the game 104-98 and tie the series.
Just go back and watch the video. Oh wait. It’s darn near impossible to find any broadcast footage of this game. I can find the entire broadcast of Game 4 of the 1984 Western Conference Semifinals between the Suns and the Jazz, but I can’t find one of David Stern’s biggest mistakes. Interesting. Well, here’s a highlight:
The fallout is when NBA Commissioner David Stern suspends Diaw and Amare for ‘leaving the vicinity of the bench’.
Stoudemire, on the suspension, stated, “I am disappointed that the NBA looked at the letter of the rule and not the spirit of the rule. I admit I stepped on the court, and that I should have had some more restraint, but Tim Duncan did the same thing but just not in such an aggressive manner. The rules are the rules, and I abide by them, and in that same vein, I think it would be beneficial for the league then to have also taken a further look at Tim Duncan,”.
Losing Diaw and Amare meant that the Suns ⅔ of their defensive solution for Tim Duncan. (Kurt Thomas being the other ⅓). The team that was designed to defeat the San Antonio Spurs vital pieces for the next game.
The Spurs win Game 5 in Phoenix by 3 points, and dominate Game 6 in San Antonio to close the series out.
The winner of this series, seeing as the #1 seed Mavs had fallen, were reward with the chance to play the #4 seed Utah Jazz, led by Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams. The Spurs win that series easily 4-1, and defeat LeBron James and the Cavs in the NBA Final 4-0.
Many have said, including Bill Simmons, that the Suns-Spurs series was the NBA Finals that season.
The Case for Danny Staying on Paxson:
There are certain plays that, when you see them, hurt your soul. For Red Sox fans, it was Vin Scully’s call of the Buckner play in the 1986 World Series. For Browns fans, it was Earnest Byner’s play in the 1987 AFC Champioship Game, simply known as, “The Fumble”.
If you are a Suns fan, you know it well.
It’s June 20, 1993. The high in Phoenix that day? A cool 108°.
The Suns are down 3-2 to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals. The two-time defending champion Bulls had won 2 in Phoenix to start the series; the Suns had won 2 out of 3 in Chicago, including an epic 3OT Game 3.
Although the Suns were a game away from elimination, they were at home. The addition of Charles Barkley in the 1992 off-season had propelled them to a league best 62-20 record. They also carried with them the 2nd best home record at 35-6.
If they win this game, they force the Michael and the Jordanaires into something they’ve never faced: a Finals Game 7. Make no mistake about it, Jordan was amazing in this series. He averaged 41 points per game (his highest Finals total ever), 8.5 rebounds per game (his highest Finals total ever), and 6.3 assists per game. This was peak Jordan. And that is saying something.
14.1 seconds left in the game, Suns have held the Bulls to a measly 9 points in the 4th quarter. Jordan had all of those 9.
Suns lead 98-96. They could have run away with this game, but missed 7 of their last 8 shots in the game.
Chicago has the ball. Everyone in America West Arena is thinking the same thing: Jordan is taking the shot.
Jordan begins bringing the ball up and hits Pippen at the three point line, who drives to the middle of the lane. He dishes to baseline cutting Horace Grant. Grant looks like he has a shot at a layup, but realizes that Danny Ainge has collapsed.
He throws a dart out to the pride of Notre Dame University, John Paxson. He hits the wide open three pointer and gives the Bulls the lead with 3.9 seconds left.
Poor Danny Ainge. He collapsed twice on the play, once on to Pippen, and then on the Grant.
Kevin Johnson gets his shot blocked by Horace Grant on the final possession, and the Suns lose, and the Bulls celebrate their three-peat.
Although this is peak Jordan, this wasn’t exactly peak Bulls. Yes, the ’92-’93 Bulls won 57 games, but that was the least amount of victories by any Jordan team to appear in the Finals. The team was having a tough time with the Suns. Again, until Paxson hit that 3, only Jordan had scored in the 4th. The Suns had a scary combination of physicality and athleticism. It was also peak Barkley and peak Majerle.
Imagine if Danny didn’t collapse. Paxson wouldn’t have been wide open, and either Pippen or Grant takes the shot. Maybe they miss the attempt and the Suns force Game 7.
Even if they make it, however, the game is only tied. The Suns would have a chance to go for the win (which, I know, they did. And in this imaginary ‘what if’ world I wish Paul Westphal draws up something better than KJ’s attempt).
The ’92-’93 Suns were the closest this city has been to an NBA Championship.
Is for you to decide!
Personally, as I said on the pod, it’s gotta be Danny. The Suns have never been closer to a championship. Yeah, I know, Michael Jordan most likely would find a way if they pushed it to a Game 7. But I’d rather take those chances that trying to finish off San Antonio, beat the Jazz, and beat the Cavs.
See Joe Johnson, 2005 playoffs. You never know what is going to happen. The Suns in ’06-’07 needed to win 8 more games to win a title. The ’92-’93 squad, if they win Game 6, only needed 1.
Could they have defeated Michael Jordan? I’d like to think so. But that is a tough team to beat. I mean, we’re tuning in on Sunday nights to ESPN to watch a documentary about them.
As for the Suns? We’re playing ‘would you rather’…
John Voita will be providing ‘Would You Rather’ articles for the next few weeks in an effort to talk about Suns history and spark some Suns debate. We hope you enjoy!
You can hear John talk about some of the topics on the ‘Would You Rather’ episode of the Suns JAM Session podcast.