The Phoenix Suns were one of five teams who attempted to contain Jordan in an NBA Finals series. While they were as successful as everyone else going up against the Bulls, their method for defending Michael was somewhat unconventional.
Cedric Ceballos, a member of the 1992-93 Suns, explained how his team not only avoided putting their best defender on Jordan … they placed their worst defender on him instead.
Michael Jordan’s 1992-93 season was business as usual
In what would be his final season before his first retirement, Jordan was still as dominant as ever. The nine-time All-Star averaged 32.6 points per game, leading the league in scoring for the seventh year in a row. MJ had 13 regular-season games with 40 or more points, including a season-high 64 points against the Orlando Magic.
The dominance carried over into the playoffs, where Chicago was attempting to secure its third consecutive championship. Jordan averaged over 32 points per game in the first two rounds of the playoffs as the Bulls swept through the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers. After back-to-back losses against the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals, Jordan’s 54-point Game 4 was one of four straight victories Chicago secured to make it back to the NBA Finals.
While Michael and the Bulls were coasting, the Suns were having a great season of their own. Led by Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, as well as former All-Stars Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson, and Danny Ainge, Phoenix went 62-20 to secure the one-seed in the Western Conference. But unlike Chicago, the Suns had to battle in the playoffs, going the full five games in round one and seven games in round three.
Cedric Ceballos said the Phoenix Suns would stick their worst defender on Jordan
On The Herd with Colin Cowherd, Ceballos weighed in on the Jordan versus LeBron James debate. Ceballos, who spent the better part of six seasons with Phoenix, sided with Jordan, citing MJ’s ability to come up big for a last-minute shot.
“I think the difference is the punishing factor,” Ceballos said. “When you needed that bucket, when you needed the game-winner, as much as Jordan’s commercials say, ‘I missed these game-winners,’ he made a lot of game-winners. The guy never lost in the Finals.”
Ceballos then told a story about how the Suns tried to stop Jordan when the two went head-to-head in the Finals (h/t: The Herd).
“When we played Michael in the Finals, we put our worst defender on him. Why? Because he’s going around everybody. So why go around our best defender — Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson — why go around them and get me or Richard Dumas coming at him? We’re not better defenders. You want the better defender to be that secondary person.”Cedric Ceballos
It was hardly an insult to have weaker defenders as the first bodies in front of Jordan, according to Ceballos. The 11-year veteran called it, “the ultimate sign of respect,” using the anecdote as his biggest reason Michael is still superior to LeBron.
The Suns’ strategy to beat Jordan did not work
Suns head coach Paul Westphal said it best after Game 4 of the NBA Finals: “He inflicted his will on us.”
Westphal’s quote came after Jordan put up 55 points on 21-for-37 shooting to lead the Bulls to a 111-105 victory and a 3-1 series lead. During the game, Westphal actually used three primary defenders to guard Jordan, with Dumas, Johnson, and the team’s best defender Majerle all trying and failing.
“We just put different guys on him,” Westphal said to the Los Angeles Times after the game. “Richard [Dumas] did as well as anybody. Nobody can guard the guy. We just wanted to make him work for his shots.”
The whole series was vintage Jordan. In six games, MJ averaged 41 points per game, scoring over 40 points four times. He was efficient as well, shooting 50% or better all but once. In the end, Jordan led the Bulls to a third straight title, additionally capturing his third of six Finals MVP Awards.
In hindsight, maybe Phoenix should have used all five defenders at once to stop His Airness.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.
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