In 1993, the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan led the Phoenix Suns 3-1 in the NBA Finals, with Game 5 at Chicago Stadium. Most everyone there took it as a foregone conclusion that the Bulls would capture its third straight championship that night.
The businesses near the arena boarded up their windows in anticipation of the proverbial (and idiotic) post-championship looting. There was talk of what day the championship parade would take place. The champagne was on ice. The T-shirts were printed up.
All that, and the Bulls lost Game 5, just as the Miami Heat will tonight against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle and Richard Dumas (remember him?) doused the Chicago fire in ’93, leading a Suns attack that handled the Bulls with ease, forcing the series to go back to Phoenix for a sixth game.
Jordan and the Bulls pulled out the title in Game 6, when John Paxson hit a last-second three-pointer. But that’s not the point.
The point is the coronation of the Miami Heat as NBA championship since Tuesday night has been premature, just like what happened 19 years ago with the Bulls.
The similarities between those two series are hard to ignore. Phoenix had home court advantage, just as OKC did this series. The Suns were deep and fast, playing at an up tempo that overwhelmed most foes. They had a superstar in Barkley and a point guard of blistering speed and talent in Johnson, just as the Thunder have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, respectively.
It was the Suns’ first (and only) NBA Finals appearance and this is Oklahoma City’s debut in the championship series. On the other side, while no one compares to Jordan, the Heat have the game’s best player in James. Scottie Pippen was a remarkable sidekick, as is Dwyane Wade. And like the Bulls, who could devastate you in the open court with Jordan and Pippen, the Heat blaze on the break with James and Wade.
This could go on for a while, but the point is that the Heat of today and the Bulls of then a lot a like and the scenario is exactly the same. The Heat are not markedly better than OKC, just as the Bulls were not demonstrably better than Phoenix. The Heat could have lost all four games in the Finals. Now, with the championship in their direct line of vision, almost touchable, they will fumble it away, at least for a night.
This does not mean James and Wade will not go into Oklahoma City and win the title on Sunday in Game 6. They certainly could. But there is too much anxiety and anticipation for tonight’s game to overcome, no matter how much James said it is “our Game 7.” And there will be too much OKC.
That’s why the Thunder will win. This is how they will win: With poise, especially to start the game and end of it. Just as they grew up in defeating San Antonio four games in a row, they have grown in losing three in a row to Miami. And that growth is exemplified in Westbrook. After scorching the Heat for 43 Tuesday, his confidence is in the stratosphere. Sure, that could lead to him being overly aggressive and dominating the ball. But the belief is that he has found more of a balance on attacking and distributing.
The beneficiary of Westbrook’s play will be James Harden, who has been as sloppy as his beard looks. Someone will point out that the Heat are playing him to drive all the way to the hoop and he will pull up in the lane for easier opportunities.
And the OKC big men – Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka, in particular – will play like big men and not observers. Lastly, the Thunder will pay more attention to Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier and not allow those two offensively challenged players to hurt them.
Together, those elements – the Heat’s irresistible urge to look ahead and OKC’s more poised, effective play – will postpone all the championship talk in Miami.
In the end, James still might be crowned NBA King. But it will not happen tonight, just as Jordan had to wait 19 years ago.
Curtis Bunn is a best-selling novelist and national award-winning sports journalist who has worked at The Washington Times, NY Newsday, The New York Daily News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.