The Phoenix Suns tried one defender after another before Michael Jordan finally showed them who could stop him.
Nobody.There may be just one person who can stop the Chicago Bulls from winning the NBA title, perhaps as early as Friday night.
Unless he self-destructs for three straight games - and his will, wisdom and wonderful offensive skills virtually guarantee he won't - Chicago should become the third NBA team to win three straight championships.
Using a "subpar" 44-point performance as motivation, Jordan played without limit, finally stopping when he reached 55 and the Bulls had secured a 111-105 victory Wednesday night.
"The big difference in the game was they had Michael and we didn't," Suns coach Paul Westphal said.
After the first victory by a home team in six games between the clubs this season, the Bulls lead the best-of-7 series 3-1 and can win it at home. If the Bulls lose Friday night, Phoenix goes home for a game Sunday night.
"All we wanted was the opportunity to win and we still have that opportunity," said Charles Barkley, whose triple-double was lost in the glare of Jordan's electrifying show. "I like their chances, being up 3-1, but we're not going to give up."
Jordan saw that in Game 3. The Suns went three overtimes but finally won 129-121. Jordan did score 44 points, but missed 24 of 43 shots.
"It's one game away and we don't want to botch up this opportunity to make history," he said.
The third game provided him with another lesson - take the ball inside - and gave him an extra spark.
"I'm very disappointed with the way I played the last game," Jordan said. "I wanted to do my part in this game. I was a little nervous at the beginning."
In Game 3, he missed 14 of his last 20 shots and struggled down the stretch. In Game 4, he made 14 of his first 20 and was spectacular from start to finish.
He had 11 points in the first quarter, 22 in the second, 10 in the third and 12 in the fourth. There were graceful jumpers, twisting layups and trademark dunks. They came against quick Kevin Johnson, strong Dan Majerle and tall Richard Dumas.
His 55 points tied him with Rick Barry for the second most in an NBA Finals, behind only Elgin Baylor's 61. His 43-point average in the series is better than Barry's record of 40.8.
"I tried to carry the load for the team," Jordan said. "When we needed the big basket, I scored a big basket. That's my role."
Barkley led Phoenix with 32 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists despite an injured right elbow that was bandaged for the second straight game. Johnson added 19 and Dumas 17.
For Chicago, Horace Grant had 17 points and 16 rebounds, and Scottie Pippen added 14 points and 10 assists.
But it was Jordan's game.
"You can't say enough about Michael's effort," said John Paxson, his teammate for eight seasons. "He just doesn't want to lose. I've seen it so many times. I never get tired of watching it. It still amazes me."
Jordan's first five baskets came on jumpers, helping Chicago to a 31-27 lead after one quarter. He scored his team's first 16 points of the second period.
He hit 21 of 37 shots, with 12 baskets coming inside. The last started a three-point play with 13 seconds left that gave Chicago a 109-104 lead. It followed B.J. Armstrong's steal after Johnson bobbled Danny Ainge's accurate inbounds pass.
"The wing penetration was open all night long," Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. "Michael saw the opening and took it, demanded it. He saw in the tapes of the last game that he hadn't gone to the basket hard enough to finish the plays."
His aggressiveness also gave him 18 free throws. He made 13. In Game 3, the Bulls made just 6 of 9 from the line.
"He was going right down the lane for easy layups," Ainge said. "We have to close up the lane."
Despite Jordan's brilliance, the Suns nearly won.
Majerle hit three 3-pointers in the final two minutes of the first half to cut Chicago's lead to 61-58 at intermission. The Suns got the last six points of the third quarter and first four of the fourth, drawing within 86-85.
Jordan's 3-point play and Armstrong's layup gave the Bulls a 102-94 lead. But the Suns closed to 106-104 with 1:01 left on two baskets by Johnson and three by Barkley.
With 44 seconds to go, Barkley stole Pippen's pass, and Majerle went in for a layup. But Pippen blocked the ball out of bounds. Then Pippen knocked the ball away from Barkley in the low post, setting up the inbounds pass that Johnson misplayed.
"The ball slipped out of my hands and went right to him," Johnson said. "It's unfortunate it happened when it did."
It led to Jordan's final fallaway one-handed shot in the lane with Barkley in front of him that resulted in a three-point play and a 109-104 lead.
"We're confident about Game 5," Ainge said. "With all the mistakes and letdowns we had, we were in a position to take the lead."
Jordan's dunk that made the score 37-35 with 9:26 left in the first half gave Chicago the lead for good, but Phoenix never fell from contention.
No team in finals history has come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a championship. Four teams have come back from a 3-1 deficit to win series in earlier rounds.
The Suns must do it against Jordan, who has increased his scoring in each game of the Finals - from 31 to 42 to 44 to 55.
"I think my best game is always the last game," he said, "because once the last game is over, we get the championship."