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Dan Majerle reflects on Suns-Bulls '93 Finals, battling Michael Jordan and John Paxson's 3

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MILWAUKEE – Nearly 28 years have passed since former Phoenix Suns guard Dan Majerle first felt the anguish over losing to the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals. The hurt still lingers.

So much so that Majerle admitted he still reflects on former Chicago Bulls guard John Paxson making a game-winning 3-pointer in a decisive Game 6 at least once a week.

“I think about it a lot,” Majerle told USA TODAY Sports. “They show it a lot. But I do think about it a lot.”

Majerle received more reminders last summer when he watched “The Last Dance” documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

Then, Jordan revealed he became motivated to play well against Majerle because former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause respected Majerle’s defense. As explained throughout the documentary, Jordan had despised Krause partly because of Krause's desire to receive more credit for how he evaluated talent and assembled teams.

“It’s a point of pride for me,” Majerle said. “You got the greatest player in the world, that has ever played basketball sitting there and talking about that one of his motivations was to kick your ass. That’s not a bad thing.”

Still, that viewing experience only brought more painful reminders of the Suns’ shortcomings. Perhaps Majerle will experience some solace soon, though. Phoenix has finally returned to the NBA Finals for the first time since Paxson’s dagger and Jordan’s dominance darkened the Suns’ championship hopes.

The Suns have a 2-1 Finals series lead over the Milwaukee Bucks entering Game 4 on Wednesday. Though he considered the Bucks “a hard team to beat” after winning Game 3, Majerle expects the Suns to experience a happier ending than the last time they played in the NBA Finals.

“I knew Milwaukee would bounce back and make this a series. But I still think the Suns are going to win,” Majerle said. “I’m actually picking them in six [games]. But I knew it wouldn’t be an easy series at all.”

After all, Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo has recorded consecutive 40-point performances in Games 2 and 3. He also has said he feels healthy from a hyperextended left knee that sidelined him for Games 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against Atlanta. Bucks guard Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have also emerged as complementary pieces.

Still, Majerle views this series through a partisan lens for various reasons. Majerle considers Suns guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker to be “superstars.” Majerle has become encouraged with Phoenix’s depth, its chemistry and Deandre Ayton’s development in his third season. And Majerle has admired the Suns’ resiliency, highlighted partly with their league-leading 24-12 road record.

The Suns have shown reverence toward the 1993 NBA Finals team in various ways. Majerle and Charles Barkley have appearances on the Suns’ pre-game hype video. Booker has worn a T-shirt honoring that year’s Suns team. But because of busy schedules and pandemic restrictions, team accounts say there has not been much contact recently among Suns luminaries and the current team.

Suns coach Monty Williams briefly exchanged text messages with former Suns guard Steve Nash, the Brooklyn Nets’ head coach. Paul has made appearances on TNT where Barkley has served as a longtime analyst. Majerle has also kept a low profile after attending the Suns’ Game 2 first-round loss to the Los Angeles Lakers and Game 5 loss to the Clippers in the Western Conference finals. Majerle has stayed home both for comfort and in hopes to boost the Suns’ fortunes of avoiding another Finals disappointment.

“This Suns franchise has been around for 50 plus years, and it’s been one of the most successful franchises in the history of the NBA,” Majerle said. “It just hasn’t won a championship yet.”

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Majerle envisioned the Suns would finally win their first NBA title once they acquired Barkley from the Philadelphia 76ers before the 1992-93 season. Before that, the Suns already had had four consecutive playoff appearances.

“He was just a guy that was able to put us over the top,” Majerle said of Barkley. “He was such a good teammate and good guy to be around and fun to be around. He got along with everybody. It just helped build our chemistry.”

That also helped Majerle, who led the NBA that season in 3-point shooting (38.1%) after spending more of his offseason perfecting that part of his game.

“We had so many good players on that team that if they did double team Charles in the post, somebody else would hurt you,” Majerle said. “If they didn’t, he was going to go for 40.”

That explains why Majerle sees parallels between the Suns’ 1993 Finals team and the current squad. Both teams had a star player (Barkley, Paul) and dependable teammates that all got along managed by a collaborative coach (Monty Williams, the late Paul Westphal).

“Westphal had a knack of letting us play and trusting us,” Majerle said. “But being firm when he had to do. He was really good offensively as far as drawing plays up and giving you the freedom to be a player. So I think he was the perfect coach for that team. I thought he did a really good job.”

No offense to the current Suns team. But unlike the 1992-93 team, they did not have to worry about Jordan. He became the primary reason why the Bulls cemented a 2-0 series lead over the top-seeded Suns. Jordan took his frustrations out on Majerle, even if he went out of his way not to talk trash while making him work.

“You didn’t want to fire him up too much. If you get him mad, he’s going to give you 50 [points],” Majerle said. “So my thing was just talk about golf and make sure I stayed even keel. Then maybe he just gives you 30 and goes on about his way.”

Chicago's John Paxson gets mobbed after his 3-point shot with 3.9 seconds left in the game over the Suns in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals.
Chicago's John Paxson gets mobbed after his 3-point shot with 3.9 seconds left in the game over the Suns in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals.

Still, the Suns won two out of the next three games to ensure a Game 6 in Phoenix. When the Suns held a 98-96 lead over the Bulls with 14.1 seconds left, Majerle said team huddled up confident about its game plan. As Majerle recalled the Suns saying, “‘if they make a 2, we go to overtime and we’ll win in overtime; just no 3’s.’”

Easier said than done. Jordan was picked up even before he crossed halfcourt. But Jordan passed inside to Scottie Pippen, who darted the ball to Horace Grant. He kicked the ball out to a wide-open Paxson from deep. Then, Majerle clutched his head as he stood underneath it

“As soon as he let it go, I knew it was over,” Majerle said. “It was depressing to have such a great year and such an unbelievable run at it to be over at that quick of a second.”

To this day, Majerle remains convinced the Suns would have won the NBA title had they forced a Game 7. Instead, Majerle has relived Paxson’s game winner at least 1,433 times for the past 28 years. Perhaps more.

Either way, Majerle sounded bullish this year’s Suns team won’t experience the same disappointment.

“I know it’s going to be hard,” Majerle said. “But I think the Suns are too good of a team to beat this year.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dan Majerle reflects on Suns-Bulls '93 Finals, battling Michael Jordan