CHICAGO -- One for the ages. The greatest game of all time. A pro basketball classic.
Those were some of the superlatives spouted by Phoenix head coach Paul Westphal and Suns heroes Charles Barkley and Dan Majerle after their team's emotional 129-121 triple-overtime victory in Game 3 of the NBA Finals here Sunday night.
The 3-hour, 20-minute marathon rejuvenated hopes for the Suns, who had lost the first two games of the best-of-seven series at home, and redeemed their floor leader, Kevin Johnson.
And the defending champion Bulls, some of whom had brazenly sported "3-Peat" T-shirts in practice last week, acknowledged the Suns would not be intimidated.
But was the game that memorable for its quality of play, or was it simply a monumental endurance test? The answers varied.
"It didn't matter if we won or lost. It was still the best basketball game I ever played in," said Barkley. "Everyone out there played with all their heart and soul, and that's all that counts.
"Once you get past the first overtime, you realize you're involved in something special," he added. "Two overtimes, it's a real happening. But three OTs -- wow!"
Westphal played for the Suns in the only other triple-overtime game in a championship series, against the Celtics in Boston 17 years ago.
"That first one wasn't a great game until the fourth quarter and overtime," Westphal said. "But this one was great the whole time."
Bulls coach Phil Jackson and superstar Michael Jordan had a different perspective.
"Technically, it wasn't a great game," Jackson said. "First, the Suns made obvious mistakes letting us get back in the game after they were 11 points up with six minutes left.
"And we didn't perform well in the overtimes, when, I think, fatigue really set in, leading to a lot of mental and physical errors. Down the stretch, no one seemed able to complete a play."
No one, that is, except Majerle, who hit a number of clutch shots in crunch time.
In the first overtime, the two teams combined for only eight points. Throughout the three overtimes, the Suns shot 35 percent (8-for-23) from the field and the Bulls 36 percent (8-for-24).
No player stepped up until Majerle hit his sixth three-pointer and followed with a steal leading to a Barkley dunk to ignite a decisive 9-0 spurt in the final overtime.
"That was a great game for NBC and Phoenix but not for us," said Jordan. "Any time we're playing at home, we shouldn't have to go three overtimes to win a game.
"Our focus was on a sweep, but we really didn't put the effort out to win," he continued. "Everybody tried to do it themselves. We lost the cohesiveness we had in the first two games. We played like individuals instead of keeping our team unity."
Suns guard Danny Ainge agreed with his Bulls rivals that Sunday's game was not a thing of beauty.
"Personally, I can think of a lot of better-played and more exciting games," said Ainge, who won two titles with the Celtics. "The best one? Probably in 1988, when we [Boston] played Atlanta in the conference playoffs. Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins really went at each other in the fourth quarter. I think they both scored over 20 points. Larry was throwing in left-handed hooks and 'Nique was making shots standing on his head. Yeah, Boston won."
Sunday's game was perhaps most memorable for the resurgence of Johnson, the scapegoat of the Suns' two losses in Phoenix, where he was being booed by his hometown fans.
Johnson not only bounced back to score 25 points and dish out nine assists while playing a record 62 minutes, but also harassed Jordan into missing 24 of his 43 shots.
"When Westphal told me I'd be guarding Jordan, I didn't do anything but sleep the night before the game," Johnson said.
"I didn't know if it was because I was tired or didn't want to think about anything else."
Jordan called the switch from 6-foot-6 Majerle to 6-1 Johnson a "gimmick" by Westphal.
"The Suns wanted me to be more aggressive individually and forget our team concept," Jordan said. "I know I can score any time with Kevin guarding me. I just need to post him up. We wanted to use that as our ace in the hole. But we really never got a chance to use it.
"A classic? Really, all we got was out of this game was a wake-up call."
BULLS VS. SUNS (Bulls lead series, 2-1)
Game 1 Bulls, 100-92
Game 2 Bulls, 111-108
Game 3 Suns, 129-121 (3OT)
Tomorrow at Chicago 9 p.m.
Friday at Chicago 9 p.m.
Sunday* at Phoenix 7 p.m.
June 23* at Phoenix 9 p.m.
* If necessary
TV: Chs. 2, 4
Kevin Johnson broke the record for most minutes played in an NBA championship-round game Sunday in Chicago against the Bulls. The top 10:
Min. .. Player, team .. .. .. .. .. .. Opposition, date
62 . .. Johnson, Phoenix ... .. .. .. .. at Chicago, 6/13/93 (3OT)
61 . .. Garfield Heard, Phoenix .. .. .. at Boston, 6/4/76 (3 OT)
60 . .. Jo Jo White, Boston ... .. .. .. vs. Phoenix, 6/4/76 (3 OT)
59 . .. Dan Majerle, Phoenix .. .. .. .. at Chicago, 6/13/93 (3 OT)
58 . .. B. J. Armstrong, Chicago . .. .. vs. Phoenix, 6/13/93 (3 OT)
58 . .. Bob Cousy, Boston .. .. .. .. .. vs. St. Louis, 4/13/57 (2 OT)
58 . .. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milw. .. .. at Boston, 5/10/74 (2 OT)
58 . .. John Havlicek, Boston . .. .. vs. Milwaukee, 5/10/74 (2 OT)
58 . .. Oscar Robertson, Milw. ... .. .. at Boston, 5/10/74 (2 OT)
58 . .. Havlicek .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. vs. Phoenix, 6/4/76 (3 OT)