What with Atlantic City being so far away and all, some of the Phoenix Suns have been known to unwind after home games at Majerle's, the local watering hole that Phoenix guard Dan Majerle is part owner of. That's where Charles Barkley was last week when Majerle announced to the patrons that Barkley had won the NBA's MVP award and was buying a round of drinks for the house. Early the next morning fans gathered on Sir Charles's front lawn to congratulate him, and a bleary-eyed Barkley emerged to thank them and sign autographs. "If they're willing to look at my face first thing in the morning, the least I can do is come out," he said.
While Barkley is in the mood for magnanimous gestures, he will surely want to do something for the rest of the Suns, especially the Phoenix reserves, who proved in the first three games of the Western Conference final against the Seattle SuperSonics that the Most Valuable Player also has most valuable teammates. They were the main reason the Suns still had the upper hand in the series, which after a 120-101 Seattle win on Sunday was tied 2-2 and headed back to Phoenix for Game 5 on Tuesday.
In combating Barkley the Sonics applied the same defensive strategy that they used successfully against Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone and Houston Rocket center Hakeem Olajuwon in the first two rounds of the playoffs—they double-teamed him at every opportunity and forced the ball into supposedly less dangerous hands. Only this time, the danger was all around the Sonics. "I guess somebody needs to tell them I'm not on Philly anymore," said Barkley, unable to avoid a dig at the hapless 76ers, who traded him to Phoenix before this season.
Although Barkley made his presence felt on the backboards, averaging 13.3 rebounds in the first three games, he scored only 12 and 16 points, respectively, in Games 1 and 3, both Sun victories. But in Game 1 forward Cedric Ceballos, a surprise starter in place of rookie Richard Dumas, helped compensate for Barkley's subpar production with 21 points, and center Oliver Miller came off the bench to add 15 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots in the Suns' 105-91 win. In Game 3, in Seattle, Barkley scored only two points in the second half of the 104-97 Phoenix victory, but backup guards Danny Ainge and Frank Johnson ignited a decisive fourth-quarter run. Overall, the Suns' bench outscored the Sonics' reserves 45-11 as Phoenix regained the home court advantage.
"When you hold Charles under 20 points two times in the series and you win a game on the road [Game 2, by the score of 103-109], you should be in better shape than we're in," said Seattle forward Eddie Johnson after Game 3. "And if we weren't shooting so badly, we would be." The Sonics shot 41.8% through the first three games—47 for 87 (54%) in Game 4—and none of them struggled more than the usually deadly Johnson, who has clearly taken his role as a guest columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer too far—he's even shooting like a sportswriter. He reached his nadir when he missed all six of his shots and went scoreless in Game 3.
Even though Seattle did a fine job on the offensive boards—outrebounding the Suns 78-48 in the four games—all the Sonic misses usually gave the Suns ample opportunities to do what they do best: run. And the sight of Phoenix point guard Kevin Johnson leading the fast break is the stuff of Seattle coach George Karl's nightmares. "They're the best fast-break team in the league," said Karl. "I thought maybe we were."
Ceballos is just one of the Suns who benefits greatly when Phoenix runs—when he's on the court, that is. During the first two playoff rounds, Ceballos averaged a scant 10.3 minutes per game, compared with 23.7 minutes for Dumas.
Ceballos has his suspicions about how Sun coach Paul Westphal picks his starting small forward. "I think his dog helps him decide," Ceballos said. "If his dog licks him on the left hand in the morning, he uses Rich. If he licks his right hand, he uses me. That's why I've been putting a piece of steak in my palm whenever I shake his hand lately."
If Ceballos's contributions were somewhat surprising, the role of the series's forgotten Johnson, Frank, was downright shocking. The 34-year-old Johnson, a veteran of eight NBA seasons with the Washington Bullets and Houston, played the last three years in Italy and was ready to hang up his hightops before this season. He was looking for a front-office job when the Suns invited him to training camp, and Phoenix kept him as insurance for the injury-prone Kevin Johnson. Sure enough, Frank played in 77 games during the regular season, and when KJ hobbled to the bench after being kneed in the thigh late in Game 3 against Seattle, FJ came on to hit three key jumpers, including a three-pointer, during a 12-0 Phoenix run that broke things open. "A few months ago I figured I'd be scouting this series for somebody," he said.
The Sonics had tipped the series briefly in their favor with their win in Game 2, thanks largely to some terrible foul shooting by Phoenix (26 of 41), 34 points from guard Ricky Pierce and their ability to slow the pace and turn the game into a plodding, ragged affair. Miller provided the best assessment of the Suns' performance, condemning it as "laggy-gaggy, loosey-goosey, whatever you want to call it. We played soft."
Barkley, whether by design or not, promptly made sure that Game 3 would not be a laggy-gaggy exercise by engaging the Seattle crowd in an R-rated battle of words and gestures. He responded to fans' vulgarities by mouthing a few profanities of his own in their direction and offering several subtle digital salutes.
To Barkley, one of the fringe benefits of the emergence of some of the supporting Suns is more material for his post-game performances. "Frank's been getting a free ride all year," he said after Game 3. "He's got an advantage. He's been sitting on his backside all year, so he's the most-rested player in the league."
Moments later Barkley called over to Johnson, who was surrounded by reporters. "Hey, Frank," he yelled, "I'm making you a star."
Not quite. There's still no disputing who the Suns' star is, and as the Sonics headed back to Phoenix they had to feel a bit uneasy, because Sir Sun hadn't even really begun to shine.