Back to the Chicago closets with the brooms. Phoenix's widely belittled Suns are neither inept nor swept. If anybody was dry-throated, tongue-wagging and shot-sick in the Game 3 triple-overtime clutch, it was the back-to-back world champion Bulls.
Scottie Pippen had a wide-open opportunity to lock up the impassioned marathon for Chicago. In the second OT, the Bulls led 114-112. Twelve seconds to go. Pippen tried a three-pointer that would've been the killer, but Scottie painfully gagged it, his air ball falling 18 inches short.
Pippen wasn't through.
A few heartbeats later, at the buzzer, Scottie's 12-foot banker rimmed out. Pippen is a marvelous player. Well-tested veteran of many big-time Bulls successes. It proves something we should already know. These physically huge and immensely skilled young men still are human beings.
Only robots and God do not err.
Kevin Johnson can tell you.
Probably, the Bulls still are going to rule these NBA Finals. Probably, by next week, a million giddy Chicagoans will be parading down "State Street that great street" wagging No.
1 fingers and wearing "TripBulls" T-shirts.
But after a historic Sunday night in 70-year-old Chicago Stadium, where Franklin D. Roosevelt was nominated for president in 1932, the Bulls know they're in a fight.
Chicago knows the Phoenix Suns are not the Wimps o' the West. Bulls and their backers know K.J. really is a legitimate NBA star, not some purple-clad NBA Finals embarrassment.
In a Game 3 that kept going and going, Johnson did an extraordinary imitation of Lazarus. What a comeback. Sixty-two minutes of gutsy, heroic basketball. In what amounted to a game and a half, K.J. scored 25 points, had nine assists and showed a doubting world an arm load of heart.
K.J. was a laughed-at failure as his Suns lost Games 1 and 2 on their America West Arena court. K.J. had been given up for dead. Critics kept preaching K.J.'s funeral even though Michael Jordan and the Bulls had the championship only half-won.
I'm among the guilty.
But a courageous K.J., the 6-foot-1 quarterback of the NBA's winningest team in the regular season, not only showed up at Chicago Stadium, he almost spent the night and left with a grin.
We're talking a deafening din where 18,676 blood-thirsty Bulls zealots were expecting their champs to put another smothering on Phoenix for a 3-0 series runaway, setting the table for a sweep.
K.J., Charles Barkley and their fellow Suns showed hearts as big as Illinois. Barkley had a 15-foot jump shot that could've won the game in regulation, but it missed. As the first OT went chilling into its final seconds, Phoenix had three cracks at a winning hoop, but K.J. missed and so did Barkley and Danny Ainge.
Everybody was horribly tired.
Nobody was quitting.
Bulls fans had to feel destiny was on their side. They've seen it happen so often. This just had to come to a pulsating, three-OT climax with the incredible Jordan finding a way to put the Suns away.
But not this time.
Barkley's engine was many horsepower shy of normal. His right elbow, damaged in a plop to the Phoenix floor in Game 2, was heavily padded and obviously restrictive.
When he took the floor Sunday night, Barkley hadn't touched a basketball since Friday's final buzzer in Phoenix. His movements looked unnatural. Charles appeared uncertain of his capabilities.
For a long time, Barkley's usual demonstrative nature was muted. When coach Paul Westphal sent his ace to the bench in the first half, the Suns picked up steam. You wondered if he would return. Wondered if Charles could physically make it.
Barkley came back. Not like his usual smashing self, but as a team leader who kept patting Suns butts, smiling to relieve tensions and talking to inflate Phoenix hopes. Charles managed a crucial basket or two. He prodded K.J. into finishing the job, and Dan Majerle into making huge shots.
Phoenix outlasted the champs.
Even if the Suns win no more, they can go home to Arizona with gobs more pride, having shown America on a memorable Sunday night in Chicago just what this battered, belittled purple gang is really made of.