CHICAGO -- Before Game 3 of the NBA Finals, with his team down 2-0 to the defending-champion Chicago Bulls and playing on the road, Phoenix Suns guard Danny Ainge said, "I think this will show how much character we're made of. See if we quit or if we play."
The Suns showed they had tremendous heart and resolve last night in winning a classic, triple-overtime game, 129-121.
And, a maligned Kevin Johnson gained redemption by playing a record 62 minutes, scoring 25 points and handing out nine assists.
Dan Majerle, with five points, and Charles Barkley, with a pair of baskets and a crucial steal, provided the big plays in the third extra period to give the Suns renewed hope and end talk of a Bulls sweep.
Suddenly, the Bulls have an energized Suns team on their hands. Game 4 of the best-of-seven series is scheduled here Wednesday night.
Michael Jordan scored 44 points, but this was hardly a vintage performance as his shooting eye grew progressively worse in the 63-minute marathon at Chicago Stadium. Jordan took 43 shots, but converted only 19. In the fourth quarter, he made just one of 10 field-goal attempts.
The last time a triple-overtime occurred in the finals was June 4, 1976. Suns coach Paul Westphal was playing for the Suns against the Boston Celtics, who ultimately won the game.
"I liked this one much better because the good guys won," said Westphal.
One of the "good guys" was Barkley, who played 53 minutes despite a painful right elbow that he injured in Game 2. It required a draining of fluid and the injection of an anti-inflammatory drug to reduce the swelling.
But the forward who was brought to Phoenix this season to produce a championship, was not about to sit this one out.
"This was the greatest game I've ever played in," said Barkley, who contributed 24 points, 19 rebounds and a key steal in the final overtime.
"Realistically, We had to win this one to stand any kind of a chance. but actually I didn't care if we won or lost. We gave everything we had, and so did the Bulls. You can't ask guys to give more than 100 percent."
But it was Johnson, bouncing back from two disappointing performances in Phoenix, who proved the major difference last night.
"I was definitely the man in the hot seat," said the guard. "People were saying my dream of winning a title was turning into a nightmare. But if anyone had asked me before the season, if I'd want to be down 0-2 to the Bulls in the finals, I'd say, "Sure, I'm a competitor. I like a big challenge."
Johnson accepted an even bigger one, asking to defend Jordan, the NBA scoring leader who had totaled 73 points in the first two games.
"I thought my offensive game might improve if I had a tougher defensive assignment," the playmaker said.
The unusual strategy seemed to work in Phoenix's favor.
"K. J. got underneath Jordan and played him well," said Bulls coach Phil Jackson. "Offensively, the difference was that he was able to penetrate our defense tonight and convert his shots."
When the Bulls did a better job of controlling Johnson's slashing moves in the three overtimes, it was Majerle who stepped forward, repeatedly hitting clutch shots.
His jumper with three seconds left tied it at 114 and sent the game into the third overtime. He put the Suns ahead to stay, 119-118, with his sixth three-point shot in the third overtime. And his two free throws with one minute left gave Phoenix a commanding 125-118 lead.
"When Majerle is in one of his zones, it doesn't matter how far he is shooting from," said Westphal. "It seems the farther out the better."
The Bulls preferred blaming this bitter loss on fatigue, with all their starters save for center Bill Cartwright playing at least 45 minutes. But the key Suns faced the same endurance test. Majerle played 59 minutes and Barkley 53.
"They came out and played the style they wanted tonight," said Jackson. "They established the tempo, but we still had excellent chances to win in the first two overtimes. By the last overtime, we'd just run out of energy."
Jordan and Scottie Pippen, in particular, appeared to be running low on fuel. "I was getting good looks at the basket," Jordan said. "But my legs weren't giving me the lift I needed."
Pippen, who needed 35 shots to produce 26 points, was hampered by leg cramps in the overtime periods, tossing up several air balls.
"My thigh was cramping up," said the All-NBA forward. "But that's no excuse. We just didn't get the job done."
Jackson refused to question the officiating after it was noted that the Bulls managed only nine free throws in 63 minutes, making six. The Suns shot 31 foul shots and converted 22.
"It's because they were shooting mostly jump shots," said Barkley, quick to help the referees.
The Suns blew an 11-point lead (101-90) in the last seven minutes of regulation, but showed amazing resilience in the face of a capacity crowd of 18,676.
"It was fun, an unforgettable game," said Ainge, who owns two championship rings from his days with the Boston Celtics.