CHICAGO -- Call them the Houdinis of pro basketball.
Facing elimination for the fifth time in the 1993 NBA playoffs, the Phoenix Suns again proved classic escape artists last night, beating the two-time defending champion Chicago Bulls, 108-98, to send the best-of-seven championship series back to Phoenix.
Chicago, which has a chance to make history and join an elite group of NBA teams by winning a third straight title, leads 3-2 and must win one of the remaining two games scheduled in Phoenix tomorrow night and, if necessary, Wednesday night.
Showing tremendous poise, the Suns jumped to a 16-point lead in the first quarter and then fought off repeated rallies by the Bulls.
This time, there would be no last-minute miracles by Michael Jordan, who scored a game-high 41 points. The Suns had too many answers in superstar Charles Barkley, rookie forward Richard Dumas and redeemed point guard Kevin Johnson, a trio that combined to score 74 points.
The Bulls closed to 99-92 with 1:52 left on four straight points by Jordan, but Dan Majerle countered with a layup and Johnson put it out of reach with a free throw and three-point play.
Phoenix coach Paul Westphal facetiously suggested that the upstart Suns had rescued Chicago from a possible full-scale riot, a duplication of the ugly scene that followed the Bulls' title-clinching victory against the Portland Trail Blazers last year.
A security force of more than 20,000 had been placed in position to handle the trouble in case of a celebration of a successful threepeat mission by the Bulls.
"It was our goal to save the city of Chicago," said Westphal. "We wanted to pay them back for their hospitality."
Barkley echoed the theme.
"Chicago, you can take all that wood off the windows, there won't be any riots tonight," he said.
"I don't care about being down 3-1, God wants us to win the world championship. I talked to him the other night."
No one believed that the Suns could possibly win two games in the most-unhospitable Chicago Stadium atmosphere. But they did, leaving 18,676 fans and an entire city in shock.
Now the Suns must address another problem -- winning at home against Chicago, which has won all three games it has played at America West Arena this season. The Bulls were the first team in NBA Finals history to win the first two games on the road.
Phoenix, whose only other appearance in the finals was a loss to the Boston Celtics in 1976, is seeking to become the first team to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win the championship series. It has happened four times in earlier playoff rounds.
"We did not want to go back to Phoenix, but they proved us wrong," said the Bulls' Scottie Pippen. "It is probably better for us to win there, with all the distractions at home.
"These are two great road teams."
Chicago is 14-4 in the postseason, including 9-2 at home. The Suns are 13-10, including 6-5 on the road, after finishing an NBA-best 62-20 in the regular season.
"We're going home now," said Westphal, "and if we can't win tw there, we don't deserve to be champions. But people who haven't seen us play too often have been selling us short all year. We're a pretty good team. Good enough to win 62 games. These are the two best teams in basketball, and the best one will win the championship."
Added Barkley: "We're approaching the next game Sunday wit a different mentality. We know now we can beat this team if we play aggressively."
The resourceful Suns beat the Bulls last night in ever meaningful category -- shooting, rebounding and passing. And, despite Jordan's 41 points, they made the Bulls' superstar earn almost every point the hard way, clogging the lanes to his lightning forays to the hoop.
"We played very fundamental defense," Westphal said. "W didn't hammer anyone into the floor. We moved our feet and our big men helped out and blocked shots. Basketball is still a game of finesse."
The Suns put on a clinic in ball movement and execution Johnson (25 points, eight assists) and Barkley (24 points, six assists) took turns finding the open man and consistently beat the Bulls' traps and double-teams.
"I've always said that if both Kevin and me play up to potential we're unbeatable, just like the Bulls when Michael and Scottie are doing their thing," said Barkley.
"I've said all along no one player can guard me. When I got off t a good start tonight, the Bulls were forced to double-team me and that opened things up for KJ and Dumas [25 points on 12-for-14 shooting]."
Said Bulls coach Phil Jackson: "We have to get a handle on Dumas. We can't allow a guy playing 30 minutes to score 25 points."
Once more, Jordan tried to make a special place in pro basketball history for himself and the Bulls. But this time, the game's greatest player came up short.
"Michael was tired tonight," Barkley said of his Olympic teammate and close friend. "He had to work awfully hard to score 55 points in the last game. Heck, he's only human."
Said Jordan: "Sometimes the desire and heart is there, but the body and mind don't act as one. We were a step slow all night, and it showed. We wanted to attain our ultimate goal of winning a third straight title in Chicago, and the city expected us to do it. We just didn't do the things we needed to win."
Again, Jordan got little help from his friends. Power forward Horace Grant, who had averaged more than 16 points in the first four games, took only four shots, all misses, and finished with one free throw in 38 minutes.
Pippen needed 20 shots to score 22 points. Reserve guard John Paxson, who sparked a Bulls rally with his long-range shooting, was the biggest help, hitting four of five three-point attempts.
But the Bulls looked ready to celebrate and pop champagne rather than put in a hard night's work.
"Tonight was a case of coming out and never catching a hot team," said Jackson. "We could never gain control. They had a great team effort. They made the extra pass, made things happen and had the energy to take over the game."
And now it is the Suns, still down a game, who look supremely confident.
"We're going back to Phoenix," said a beaming Barkley. "It's going to be hot. Real hot."
BULLS VS. SUNS (Chicago leads series, 3-2)
Game 1 Bulls,100-92
Game 2 Bulls,111-108
Game 3 Suns,129-121 (3 OT)
Game 4 Bulls, 111-105
Yest'day Suns, 108-98
Sunday at Phoenix 7 p.m.
Wed.* at Phoenix 9 p.m.
* If necessary
TV: Chs. 2, 4