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The Last Dance

One Play: There's more to John Paxson's game-winner from the 1993 NBA Finals than meets the eye

Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.

Today, John Paxson and Michael Jordan take centre stage.


Context: The sixth episode of "The Last Dance," which airs on ESPN in the United States on Sunday and will be available worldwide on Netflix at midnight on Monday, will touch on the 1992-93 season and the 1993 NBA Finals.

That season ended in another title for the Chicago Bulls, as they outlasted the Phoenix Suns in six games in the NBA Finals. Michael Jordan was named Finals MVP for the third time in his career, but several other players on the Bulls stepped up in key moments of the series. Scottie Pippen almost averaged a triple-double, Horace Grant came up big in two of Chicago's wins and John Paxson played hero in the final game of the series.

While Paxson scored only eight points in Game 6, he hit a 3-pointer in the closing seconds to secure the win. It's widely regarded as being one of the greatest shots in NBA Finals history.

The play: Paxson makes a game-winning 3-pointer in Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals.

Breakdown: Down by two points with 14.1 seconds remaining in the game, Jordan inbounds the ball.

With Paxson being pressured by Danny Ainge, Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong runs towards the ball on the right sideline and receives a pass from Jordan to begin the possession. Armstrong then passes the ball immediately back to Jordan and makes his way back down the court to prevent his defender, Dan Majerle, from doubling or trapping Jordan.

Rather than hold onto the ball himself for the final shot, Jordan gives it up again, this time when he approaches the halfcourt line to Scottie Pippen, who makes a cut from the baseline to the top of the 3-point line.

What happens next is the beginning of the end for the Suns.

Instead of playing it safe, Charles Barkley tries to intercept Jordan's pass from Pippen. The problem? He ... doesn't come up with the steal. As a result of his gamble, he falls out of position and gifts Pippen a free driving lane to the basket with 8.6 seconds left on the clock.

"[Pippen] was supposed to give it to Michael coming at us full speed," Barkley said in reflection. "So I jumped the play."

Pippen wastes no time making Barkley pay by putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim.

Pippen isn't able to get all the way to the basket, but his drive sucks both Ainge and Suns centre Mark West into the paint. Pippen keeps the ball moving, passing it along to Horace Grant on the baseline.

To prevent Grant from getting a layup, Ainge rotates over to put himself between Grant and the basket. That leaves Paxson, who made 46.3 percent of his 3-point attempts in the 1992-93 regular season and 62.5 percent in the 1993 Playoffs, unguarded on the perimeter.

Grant makes the right play by kicking it out to Paxson instead of forcing a shot over Ainge and West.

With nobody within six feet of him, Paxson calmy knocks down a 3-pointer to give the Bulls a one point lead with 3.9 seconds to go.

"When he came and dished that ball out to Paxson to shoot that ball, I just rewound all of that whole season and was like, 'Wow, we're going to end it with this," Suns forward Cedric Ceballos said.

Why it matters: There are a few reasons.

First, Paxson's shot ended the series, which meant the Bulls didn't have to play a Game 7 in Phoenix a few days later. Jordan only lost one Game 7 in his NBA career, but the Suns were hungry for a title and had the best home record (35-6) in the Western Conference that season. A win against them wouldn't have come easy.

Secondly, Paxson's game-winner helped the Bulls win their third straight title, making Chicago the first team since the Boston Celtics in the mid-1960s to three-peat. Only two teams have three-peated since them - those same Bulls a few years later, followed only by the Los Angeles Lakers, who were also coached by Phil Jackson, in the early 2000s.

Finally, it showed how much trust Jordan had in his teammates at this point of his career.

There's a well-known story from Game 5 of the 1991 NBA Finals of Jackson calling a timeout and asking Jordan who was open. The reason why? Magic Johnson was sagging off of Paxson rather aggressively to throw an extra body at Jordan, who led all scorers with 31.2 points per game in that series. Knowing how open Paxson was, Jackson wanted Jordan to trust his teammates by making the simple play.

It paid off. Not only was Paxson Chicago's third-leading scorer behind Jordan and Pippen with 20 points, he made one of the biggest shots in Game 5 to help Chicago win its first title.

"The biggest hurdle that had to be overcome when Phil [Jackson] took the job was getting Michael to trust us because we could hold up our end of the bargain," Paxson said.

"It wasn't just a one-man show. Michael knew that in his heart, but we still had to prove it. We needed to show Michael we could do that rather than just get his trust early on. But we did, as a group of individuals, show him that he could count on us."

Jordan didn't even do anything on this particular possession that showed up in the box score. He inbounded the ball, took a few dribbles and watched everything else unfold while he was being face guarded by Suns guard Kevin Johnson. However, it was his willingness to give up the ball as early as he did that set up the chain reaction that ended with one of the best 3-point shooters in the league getting a wide open shot.

It's even more impressive considering Jordan was the only player on the Bulls who has scored a point to that point of the fourth quarter. He had every reason not to trust his teammates given how much they had struggled and how big the moment was, and yet he did.

By no means is this one of the first plays that come to mind when thinking about Jordan's Hall of Fame career, but it is one of the most illuminating.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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