PBT’s RetroBall: Suns-Sonics ’93 and the night Barkley wouldn’t lose

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Since billionaire owners and millionaire players are bitterly divided over how much money they’ll be splitting over the coming years and have locked us out of actual basketball to talk about, PBT will be regaling you this summer on the weekends withRetroBall. Using the advanced powers of the internet and NBATV, we’ll bring you interesting stories from years gone by. If nothing else, it will provide us an opportunity to make fun of fashion and culture from the past, which is always a giggle.

This week we bring you a reminder that players should not be defined by their post-career caricatures. I have this nightmare. With Charles Barkley the bombastic, heavy-set column that hoists “Inside the NBA” up, there’s a generation of kids that will only know Barkley as the guy in the T-Mobile commercials who hates Golden State/Miami/Dallas/whoever. Barkley was of the Jordan years, and as such, his legacy suffers accordingly. His Finals appearances only reflect a counterpoint to Jordan, yet another great player who couldn’t get past MJ, much like Karl Malone and Clyde Drexler with Portland. It’s a disservice to what Barkley did, especially considering how he did it, that he’s looked at as the foil to Jordan and the guy who banters with Dwyane Wade in commercials.

So with that in mind, I took a look at Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals between Barkley’s Phoenix Suns and the Seattle Supersonics, led by Shawn Kemp, Ricky Pierce, and Eddie Johnson, along with Gary Payton in just his third year in the league, still learning how to become “The Glove.”

Speaking of Malone, the Sonics knocked off Malone and Stockton’s Jazz in the first round, before cementing themselves as true upstarts after downing Olajuwon’s Rockets. The Rockets would win the title the following year (when Jordan took his “break”). The Sonics were the third seed that year, but were tied with the Rockets at 55 wins. It was Kemp’s time.

Barkley, on the other hand, was having his MVP season and Phoenix looked like a team of destiny, if you didn’t factor in the fact that Jordan existed. This was Barkley at his best, and there isn’t a better game to showcase how dominant he could be. His final line? 44 points on 12-20 shooting, 19-22 from the stripe, 24 rebounds (!), 14 offensive, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block, 1 turnover.

What follows are my observations from watching the game. I was eleven at the time, so consider these observations from a fresh eye.

  • We’re obviously biased here, but I’ll still say the “NBA on NBC” opening and their coverage throughout was just lightyears beyond everything else that’s been done. It managed to capture the drama of the moment without dousing it in forced history. You felt like you were watching history be made without being told you were watching history be made.
  • Best part about this game? THIN SHAWN KEMP! (As in, the era before Fat Shawn Kemp.) If you were building the perfect power forward, this 23-year-old version of Kemp was pretty much the perfect model. He was still raw, but was already averaging 18 points and 11 boards with 2 blocks per game. Kemp in the last three games of this series headed into Game 7 had scored 20, 33, and 22 points on Barkley, and had the following field goal percentages: 62%, 72% (in that 33-point game, in a loss!), 67%. He was lithe, he was explosive, and he actually had a turnaround jumper. It’s weird to think of a power forward who is raw but actually has a face-up game. Now if you’re raw that pretty much means you’re a basketball jellyfish. You’re fast and long, but if asked to do anything complex you just bob incoherently.
  • The Suns explode out of the gate, and it’s not even really Barkley, he’s only got six in the first period. (That’s right, Barkley scores 38 points over the final three frames.) No, instead it’s the unlikely combination of Tom Chambers and Mark West. I know! Who saw that coming, right?
  • Chambers is actually in for Cedric Ceballos who went down in this series with a stress fracture in his right foot. Chambers was actually the third oldest player on roster behind Frank Johnson and Kurt Rambis, who got a DNP-CD in this game. No word on if this is because Kahn retroactively enforced one.
  • You want something to blow your mind, forget thin Shawn Kemp. Give a look to thin Oliver Miller. Seriously. I Googled an image of Miller with the Raptors to compare. Here’s Miller with the Suns in Game 7, 1993:
  • source:  And here’s what he looked like seven years later:
  • source:  So you can obviously see the change there.
  • Gary Payton isn’t quite Gary Payton yet, here. He’s still working on developing into the Glove. It’s only his third season, and he’s up against a much better player in Kevin Johnson, who’s in his prime. Johnson absolutely torches Payton in this one. “The Glove” is more like a loose-fitting piece of cloth that one wraps around a hand. More like a hand moo-moo. Johnson’s crossover and change of direction is phenomenal in this game. At one point, Payton gives him a solid three feet of room to try and contain him, Johnson blows by him anyway, then drops in a running hook and-one. It’s a virtuoso performance, but moreso on the defensive side. Johnson is spying constantly like a safety let off the called-play chain. The Sonics thrice try and force the break and Johnson cuts off the outlet pass.
  • In a nice premonition of the Seven Seconds or Less years, the Suns are downright merciless in transition. The break starts immediately, and KJ makes his decision on what to do after two steps and as soon as he’s across the timeline. Most of the time he’s just blowing by defenders and getting in for layups, the Sonics don’t have anyone who can challenge defensively at the rim with the amount of time and energy Kemp’s having to pay Barkley.
  • The Sonics shooters kind of drift in and out of this game. Derrick McKey shows up and lights up the second quarter which puts the Sonics back within range. Then Eddie Johnson takes over the late third and fourth. Sam Perkins has a nice third quarter. But they can’t get consistent performances from anyone (though to be fair, if Eddie Johnson played the whole game like he did in the third quarter, he would have broken Wilt’s record and Barkley would have wound up killing someone in the locker room later.
  • Early on the Sonics are doing a great job on Barkley, sending the double immediately. If he were Dwight Howard, this would be the end of the story. But Barkley actually adjusts to the coverage and starts cutting immediately after passing out of the double, which confuses the Sonics to no end as all their lanes are then in chaos. At one point, Barkley just loops around Majerle low and shoves Majerle into two defenders, which allows Ainge to float him the ball right in the center of the paint for an easy one.
  • Barkley starts to get going in the second, then absolutely destroys the third quarter. He’s everywhere. Kemp’s there with him step for step and Barkley’s just owning him. Kemp makes two hard moves to deny the entry pass and the third time down, Barkley just head fakes him, turns and goes to the basket for an easy dunk. Most of them are not this easy. Barkley’s anticipation is on display here. The Suns were essentially able to play four perimeter guys with Barkley because even then, he’d wind up with the board.
  • Danny Ainge at this point had played in five finals over the past eight years. Remarkably, he never traded Kendrick Perkins in any of them.
  • Ainge is pretty much the “you gotta be kidding me” guy to Seattle. They can handle everyone else, but just when they think they’ve closed off the offense effectively, Ainge lights them up on catch and shoot. It’s more than they can handle.
  • Mark West with a great weak-side recovery to block Payton at the rim. On the block, which was clean, West makes contact elbow-to-head on Payton. Payton just turns and runs back on defense. Today, Payton would have clutched his head and crumpled to the floor, perhaps penning a letter to his mother on his death-bed.
  • Barkley spins around Kemp from about 16 feet baseline. The help defense comes to try and cut off the baseline, while Payton is trying to play his backside to make sure he doesn’t double back for a hook. The result is that Barkley moves in-between the two and double-clutches one-handed while fading away from under the rim, good, and-one. Kemp picks up his fourth foul.
  • Another thing that’s shocking about Barkley, he can handle in transition. Now at 6-6, this isn’t shocking, he’s basically an oversized 3. But he’s dribbling with such authority, it makes you realize how few of today’s bigs can really do that. Except for like, Josh Smith, who chooses not to and instead just now, as I wrote this, took another three.
  • When Eddie Johnson starts going off in the third, Barkley actually tails off on his rotation, springs out and blocks him. Running down the floor, you can see Barkley say, “Enough of this (expletive).”
  • In the fourth, the Suns kick the thing into absolute overdrive. They’re forcing everything, and the Sonics are just reeling. They managed to get the lead down to 9 in the early fourth, before the Suns just have one of those “We are winning this game. We are going to the Finals, we are not losing to Ricky Pierce” runs.
  • At one point Payton goes for a rebound, Barkley snags and starts throwing elbows, resulting in Payton chirping in his ear for a solid five feet. Barkley shoves him three feet back, turns and yells back at him. In today’s NBA, that’s two techs. Here it’s just good clean entertainment.
  • Eddie Johnson at one point tosses it off Majerle’s back inbounding, catches it and nails an 18 foot baseline J. The Sonics had to be killing themselves that they wasted a 34 point Eddie Johnson explosion at age 33. Johnson winds up scoring 34 points on 17 shots in 26 minutes. Twenty-six!
  • Nate McMillan was burly in this game. He couldn’t get his jumper going but his defensive work was pretty stout. The Sonics’ defensive strategy was actually pretty sound. Lots of doubles, lots of traps, lots of zone to cut off the passing lanes. Unfortunately, Charles Barkley does not care what you do.
  • I always make fun of the unnecessary “MVP” chants, but the chants for Barkley at the line for his playoff career-high in points seem really appropriate and make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
  • Chants of “Beat the Bulls” begin as the clock winds down. Oh, Phoenix. You’re always so hopeful.
  • The closer lineup for Phoenix is KJ, Ainge, Dan Majerle, Barkley,and Tom Chambers. And it works. They crush the Sonics, breaking open an 18 point lead to cruise to a double-digit win and a trip to the Finals.
  • Barkley had guaranteed a win. This was everything to him. He truly believed this was his year to make greatness happen. And the Sonics had pushed the Suns to seven games. So when Barkley went out, after an unbelievable game, this: source:

 

Three Things to Know: Giannis Antetokounmpo spoils Boston home opener

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Every night in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, especially on this, the real opening night of the NBA with 22 teams in action. Every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. Tonight, that includes a few historic numbers… good and bad.

1) Brad Stevens, Celtics have no answer on how to slow Giannis Antetokounmpo either. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re getting mentioned in the record books with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you’re doing something very right. Monday night, the Greek Freak was rolling to the rim and finishing alley-oops over defenders, hitting floaters and leaners in the lane, and generally using his length to get any shot he wanted against the Celtics on his way to a 37-point, 13 rebound night in Boston. The only other Buck to have an opening night of at least 35 and 10? Yup, one Mr. Abdul-Jabbar.

Put a smaller defender on Antetokounmpo and he shoots right over them. Put a bigger defender on him and he goes around them — or just over them too. Brad Stevens tried a lot of things on defense, and while Al Horford had a little first-half success slowing him nobody did all game as he shot 59.1 percent on his way to dropping 37.

Notice all those shots are close to the rim. Antetokounmpo was a ridiculous 10-of-12 at the rim and 12-of-18 in the paint overall, but just 1-of-4 outside the key. It’s easy to say “make him a jump shooter” but good luck finding anyone who can stay in front of him, or that he can’t just finish over. The man was dunking over Aron Baynes, how do you get anyone much bigger in front of him?

Boston was up four points entering the fourth quarter when the second night of a back-to-back seemed to hit them, they scored just 20 points on 8-of-25 shooting in the final frame, 4-of-21 outside the restricted area. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo went off for 16 in the fourth as he ramped up his aggressiveness and Brad Stevens and the Celtics had no answer. Marcus Smart was fiery and got into it with Matthew Dellavedova, that may have exemplified Boston’s spirit, but Celtics looked physically and emotionally worn down by the end. Hard to blame them.

Rough start to the season for Boston, who lost Gordon Hayward just minutes into the opener (he’s out for the season), they fell to the Celtics Tuesday night and now are off to an 0-2 start. They will bounce back, but just now how the team with all these new players thought things would start.

2) Jeremy Lin injures knee and there is “tremendous” concern it is serious. Midway through the fourth quarter against the Pacers, Jeremy Lin drove the lane and finished a layup at the rim that looked ordinary — except when he landed he went to the ground grabbing his knee and did not get back up.

This isn’t good. Neither were the reports during and after the play.

Brooklyn was counting on Lin to help stabilize the point guard position and the backcourt with D'Angelo Russell (who had 30 on the night in a losing effort). If Lin is done for all or most of the season, it’s a huge setback for a team that, while bad, was expected to be a little better than in previous seasons. Remember, the Cavaliers have Brooklyn’s first-round pick this season unprotected (part of the Kyrie Irving trade from Boston).

• While we’re on the injury front, Boston’s Gordon Hayward underwent surgery on his dislocated ankle and fractured tibia on Wednesday, and according to his agent he is “unlikely” to return this season. Hayward did send a video message to Celtics fans thanking them. Boston will try to move on, but it’s been a difficult and emotional start to the season for the Celtics.

3) Suns’ season opening performance wasn’t just bad, it was the worst ever. The record for worst opening night loss in NBA history belonged to the 1987 Los Angeles Clippers coached by Gene Shue, who were blown out by Denver by 46 points.

No more. That record now belongs to the Phoenix Suns, who fell at home to the Portland Trail Blazers 124-76 — a 48 point loss. The Suns shot 31.5 percent as a team — Devin Booker was 6-of-17 and didn’t hit a three, Eric Bledsoe was sloppy and reckless all night and finished 5-of-18 with five turnovers and three assists, while Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss combined to go 1-of-10 off the bench. The Phoenix offense was about as in synch as the left shark, and many possessions ended with a terrible shot being jacked up because, well, somebody had to shoot it.

I’d like to say this was a good omen for the Trail Blazers’ defense, but really it’s impossible to judge how good it was against this offense. It was still a win the Blazers will gladly take, Damian Lillard had 24 points while Pat Connaughton came off the bench for 22.

PBT Extra: Bobby Portis punch adds to challenges for Bulls this season

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Nikola Mirotic will be out 4-6 weeks due to his concussion and fractured jaw.

Bobby Portis has been suspended for the first eight games of the season for causing those injuries to Mirotic with a punch at practice.

What does this mean for a Bulls locker room that was already going to have to deal with the weight of losing a lot of games.  I get into all these questions in this latest PBT Extra.

It’s going to be a long season in Chicago.

Gordon Hayward’s agent says return this season unlikely

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Wednesday night in Boston Gordon Hayward underwent surgery to repair his dislocated ankle and fractured tibia suffered just five minutes into the season-opening game, a gruesome injury that put a pall over the rest of the night.

There had been hope from some Celtics fans that Hayward could return this season, likely for the playoffs, but now that the surgery is complete Hayward’s agent told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN not to expect him back until next season.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who saw the injury. Hayward is in the first year of a four-year deal with the Celtics, they were always going to choose a cautious path rather than rush him back. Under Danny Ainge Boston has always taken the long view, even with all their moves this summer — specifically bringing in Hayward and Kyrie Irving — the target was to be the team set up for next as LeBron James and the Cavaliers faded. That plan does not change now.

Earlier in the day, Hayward had sent a video message out to Celtics fans thanking them for their support in the past 24 hours.

Without Hayward, the Celtics now will focus more on smaller lineups, rookie Jayson Tatum will get more run, as will Marcus Smart in his contract year. Jaylen Brown will be thrust into a more significant role. Also, Kyrie Irving will be asked to do more as the team’s second-best playmaker is now out for the season.

The Celtics will take a step back this season without Hayward, who was going to be crucial for them on both ends of the floor. That’s evidenced by their 0-2 start, falling to the Cavaliers and Bucks on the first couple nights of the season. Boston should still be a team well above .500 and in the playoffs, but they will not be quite the same this season.

Trail Blazers beat Suns by 48, biggest season-opening rout in NBA history

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Any controversy over C.J. McCollum‘s suspension for the season-opener should be put to rest. The Trail Blazers fared fine without him.

More than fine.

Portland beat the Suns, 124-76, Wednesday. The 48-point margin is the largest ever in a season opener, even as the Trail Blazers let a 58-point fourth-quarter lead dwindle.

Here are the most lopsided season-openers in NBA history (openers for both teams appearing twice):

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The 48-point defeat is also the Suns’ worst lost in franchise history, topping a 44-point loss to the Seattle SuperSonics in 1988. It could be a long year in Phoenix.