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#TBT - Paul Westphal guarantees a playoff comeback

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Charles Barkley did most of the trash-talking for the 1993 Phoenix Suns, but it was head coach Paul Westphal who gave his team the toughest boast to back up

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This guy once predicted the future.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The 1992-93 season was a sea change of sorts for the Phoenix Suns. The Suns had made three huge off-season adjustments. The first was a move from the anitquated though beloved Veterans Memorial Coliseum to their new home downtown, then known as America West Arena (named for an airline that no longer exists). The next was the hiring of head coach Paul Westphal, who replaced Cotton Fitzsimmons as Fitz transitioned to a front office role with the organization. Westphal was a Phoenix Suns legend. He had led the team to their first and only trip to the NBA Finals and his jersey was already in the rafters. The third was the addition of the outspoken and outrageous Charles Barkley to a roster that was already stacked with firepower in the form of Kevin Johnson, Tom Chambers and Dan Majerle.

As current fans of the Phoenix Suns know, change does not always come easily. For once however, the organization took to these changes like a fish to water. After their first 11 games, the Suns were a good-but-not-great 7-4. But on December 1, 1992, Charles Barkley and Tom Chambers both recorded double-doubles in a 109-90 thrashing of the Charlotte Hornets. The streak was on. Phoenix won 14 consecutive games (longest Suns’ winning streak and still 3rd longest in franchise history), surging to the top of the Western Conference standings at 21-4. They would hold that spot until the end of the season, where they finished a franchise best 62-20.

With homecourt advantage in the Western Conference the Phoenix Suns were heavy favorites against their first round playoff opponent: the hated Los Angeles Lakers. These were not your (grand?) father’s Lakers though. The Showtime Era was over and the Lake Show squeaked into the 8 seed with a 39-43 record after losing 15 of their last 21 games. The players leading the charge for LA: Sedale Threatt, A.C Green, Vlade Divac and James Worthy. Solid names there, but no one that had Phoenix trembling in their boots. But maybe they should have been?

Phoenix entered Game 1 missing a key cog in its league-leading engine: Kevin Johnson had missed the last two regular season games with a knee-injury suffered when a celebrating Charles Barkley jumped into him. Johnson’s injury forced Negele Knight into the starting lineup and that went about as well as one could expect. The Lakers’ starting backcourt of Threatt and Byron Scott torched Phoenix for 57 points on the way to a 107-103 victory. Threatt shot a mind-boggling 17-24 from the field in addition to doling out 7 assists.

Kevin Johnson returned to the starting lineup for Game 2 and put on a show, scoring 14 points and dishing 16 assists. Charles Barkley tied a Suns franchise playoff record by pulling down 21 rebounds (a record he would break a month later versus Seattle). And yet... the Suns lost? Well in addition to snaggin all those rebounds, Chuck laid a ton of bricks: 16 of them to be exact. His poor shooting (8-24) along with off-nights from Danny Ainge (1-7) and Dan Majerle (3-11) were enough to tip the balance to underdog Lakers in a slow, ugly 86-81 loss. The Suns were now down 2 games to none in a best of 5 series and would have to go on the road to even the series up.

Rookie head coach Paul Westphal was unfazed:

It was a bold prediction, but befitting a team that boasted the most boastful player in the league. Would Westy’s team rise to the occasion? Indeed.

In game 3, Phoenix weathered a 30-point outburst from Vlade Divac and 14-point 17-rebound effot from A.C Green to steal a 107-102 victory. In Game 4, the Suns finally got some swagger back. They smothered the Lakers on defense, holding them to a paltry 36.7% shooting. The only Laker to make even half his shots was backup guard Tony Smith (5-9, 15 points). Phoenix rolled L.A, 101-86.

So it was back to Phoenix for the decisive Game 5. With homecourt advantage, a healthy roster, the reigning MVP and all the momentum, this was the Suns’ game to lose. And boy, they came very very close. In all fairness to the Lakers, they played a hell of a series up to this point and Game 5 was no different. At halftime, the Suns held a one-point margin. After 3 quarters, they extended that lead to 7 points. But LA took it all back to tie the game, and even had a chance to win it, but Byron Scott’s 24-footer at the end of regulation fell short. The Suns needed a hero and they got one. But it wasn’t the Round Mound of Rebound, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle or Tom Chambers. This was Oliver Miller’s game.

The rookie had been a key reserve for Phoenix all season, but in overtime of Game 5, he literally saved the season. In a season in which the first year player had averaged 5.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game, Miller posted nine points, 5 rebounds and a block in overtime alone. His energy propelled Phoenix to a quick 6 point lead that carried them 107-102 victory.

How did Westy react to his team fulfilling his prediction?

Westphal cut out the predictions after that. He learned a lesson most prognosticators rarely do: quit while you’re ahead.