CHICAGO -- The defending champion Chicago Bulls found themselves on the threshold of joining the elite teams in NBA history last night after beating the Phoenix Suns, 111-105, to gain a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals.
Riding a brilliant 55-point performance by Michael Jordan, the Bulls now need only one victory in the remaining three games to complete their threepeat mission. No team has won three in a row since the Boston Celtics won eight straight from 1959 through 1966.
But Chicago needed a pair of clutch plays in the final seconds to hold off the Suns. Trailing 106-104, Phoenix had the ball with 13 seconds left. But B. J. Armstrong swiped the ball from Kevin Johnson,setting up a game-clinching three-point play by Jordan.
"The main difference tonight was that they had Michael Jordan and we didn't," said Suns rookie head coach Paul Westphal, who tried three different defenders -- Richard Dumas, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle -- in an effort to neutralize the Bulls' star.
"No one can guard the guy," Westphal conceded. "It was just a magnificent performance. You just try to make him work as hard as possible, but he inflicted his will on us."
Said Jordan: "When it's a big game, naturally you try to play your best. In the past, sometimes I tried to do too much and got out of rhythm. But tonight I stayed focused, I just kept attacking the basket, trying to score or draw fouls."
His 55-point outburst was a personal best in a championship series, tying Golden State's Rick Barry for second place behind former Lakers' legend Elgin Baylor, who scored 61 against the Celtics in Boston on April 14, 1962.
After the Bulls, who had won the first two games in Phoenix, lost a triple-overtime game here in which Jordan made only 19 of 43 shots, there was concern among the Chicago coaching staff that the team was becoming a one-man gang.
But when that one man is Jordan, it's a different situation, as the frustrated Suns discovered.
"Our strength happened to be Jordan tonight," said Bulls coach Phil Jackson. "Some of our other guys were reluctant to shoot the ball at crucial times. Michael seemed the only person ready to deliver."
Jordan had 33 points at halftime, but the Suns made a late spurt to trim a 52-43 deficit to 61-58.
Everytime it appeared the Bulls were ready to break away, Phoenix, led by Charles Barkley (32 points, 12 rebounds), clawed their way back.
The Suns closed to within a point, 86-85, early in the fourth quarter. And they kept the crowd of 18,676 riveted by never allowing the Bulls to gain more than a six-point advantage down the stretch.
It became extremely tense in the last two minutes after Bill Cartwright got called for goaltending a Barkley dunk attempt. The basket pulled the Suns within a field goal, 106-104, with 1:26 remaining.
Barkley then stole the ball, setting up the furious finish.
"We felt we were in excellent position to steal this one," Westphal said. "But things just didn't go our way in the last minute."
That amounted to a classic understatement.
With Majerle ahead of the field, driving for the tying basket, Pippen overtook him and knocked the ball out of bounds.
But the Suns were still alive. Danny Ainge tossed an inbounds pass to Kevin Johnson, who, for a split second, appeared to lose his focus, juggling the ball. That was enough time for Armstrong to slap it away, setting up Jordan's spinning turnaround that also drew a foul on Barkley and finally put the Suns to rest.
"Danny made a good pass," said Johnson. "The ball just slipped behind my shoulder. It's just unfortunate that a turnover led to our loss."
But it took a superhuman effort by Jordan to put the Suns on the brink of elimination.
"We need to get to Jordan quicker," said Ainge, who drew matching technicals with Jordan for jostling in the last quarter. "If had been making fall-away jumpers, I might not have felt as bad. But he was going right down the lane for uncontested layups."
Even though they need only one more victory, the Bulls were anything but cocky after another narrow escape.
"That was another donnybrook," Jackson conceded. "We were fortunate to win because we felt we could never control the tempo. I'm certain that Friday will be a great test of will and intensity."
The Suns refused to capitulate in the face of mounting odds.
"I have no complaints about the way our team competed tonight," said Barkley. "It was unrealistic to think we could come to Chicago and win three games. All we wanted was an opportunity, and we still have that. Sure, I like their chances now, but I know this team will never lay down and quit."
Added Westphal, facetiously: "Michael was not bad tonight. We'll see if he can do it again Friday. If he does, we'll be convinced."
Barkley,playing without a bandage to protect his sore right elbow, was all but invisible in the Suns' offense the first 10 minutes. But the ball finally found its way to the Suns' superstar,who made two straight shots to close to 27-25.