Buck Williams did not just strip Tom Chambers of the ball Thursday night. He took away the Phoenix Suns' fading playoff hopes, obliterated the notion of home-court dominance and ended 13 seasons of Portland Trail Blazer frustration since their last trip to the NBA championship series in 1976-77.
In one stealthy move, Williams did all that. The Trail Blazer forward's steal with eight seconds left, the last of several late and crucial defensive plays, enabled Portland to secure a 112-109 victory over the Suns in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.
Finally breaking through on the road, after losing two previous times at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the Trail Blazers felt it fitting that the victory that will send them to the championship series for the first time since the 1976-77 season was made possible by tough defense in a close game.
It was the way the Trail Blazers won all four games, the first three coming at home. Even though the Suns were without point guard Kevin Johnson, who sat out the second half with a strained left hamstring, the Trail Blazers nonetheless again made all the big plays at big times.
None was bigger than Williams' steal. Portland clung to a 110-109 lead with 23 seconds left, but Phoenix had the ball. Without Johnson to run the offense, the Suns' options were guard Jeff Hornacek, who had 36 points and played brilliantly, or Chambers, who had 17 points but played horrendously.
Chambers, perhaps by process of elimination, was the choice.
He had posted low against Williams and received an unobstructed pass from Hornacek. When Chambers turned and swung the ball near his ankles like a pendulum, Williams was crouched and ready to pounce.
"I've been watching Tom Chambers do that all series," Williams said. "He tries to rake the ball, swing it around, to give himself space. I got very low and I was ready for him. I was picking my spots."
Williams' timing was impeccable. After gaining possession of the ball, he slapped it to Clyde Drexler, who was fouled and made both free throws for a 112-109 lead with 6.8 seconds left. Hornacek's desperation three-pointer at the buzzer failed, and the Trail Blazers had, well, stolen the Western Conference final series from the Suns.
In this case, calling it a steal is high praise.
"It's fitting we won it like this," Drexler said. "That's the way we won it all season." It was how the Trail Blazers overcame a 10-point third quarter deficit to make it close in the fourth quarter and, eventually, overtake the Suns.
Chambers, who had all of his 17 points in the second half, claimed he was fouled. In fact, he said Williams pushed him out of the post even before the steal.
"That's just the way it goes," Chambers said. "I was posting up at the low post at the beginning of the play, and I wound up in three-point land. I didn't walk out there by myself."
Prior to Williams' steal, Jerome Kersey blocked a shot by Hornacek. The Suns still had a 109-108 lead with about 40 seconds left when Hornacek saw and opening in the lane and drove.
Kersey stepped in and blocked Horacek's running one-hander. Then, he deftly retrieved the ball and passed to Drexler to start the fast break. Kersey finished the break with a layup and a 110-109 Trail Blazer lead with 27 seconds left.
"(Hornacek) had a lot of rotation on that shot; it was kind of a lob," Kersey said. "I just wanted to get a hand on it."
Trail Blazer hands were everywhere. Their strong defensive play enabled them to win the series despite making barely more than 40% of their shots.
"When the game was on the line, defensively we did what we had to do," said Portland guard Terry Porter, who had 23 points. "It's just a sign of our mental toughness that we can win so many close games. You don't do that unless you're mentally tough."
Said Sun Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons: "I wanted the ball in Tom Chambers' hands or Hornacek's hands, and we got it to them the last two plays. But Portland has great athletes, and they made great plays. Give Portland credit for that."
Certainly, Kevin Johnson's absence in the second half adversely affected the Suns. Yet, with Hornacek making 11 of 22 shots and all 14 free-throw attempts, the Suns carried on quite well for at least one quarter.
But even with Johnson earlier in the series, the Suns had been incapable of executing well enough to win close games. However, the Suns had beaten the Trail Blazers at home twice by a combined 46 points with Johnson.
Naturally, their spirits sank when he limped of the court with 2:54 left in the half, shortly after making a three-point play on a driving layup.
"You can never overcome KJ's loss," said Sun swingman Dan Majerle, who had 22 points through three quarters but was shut out from there. "They just kept chipping away at our lead. We tried to throw some points at them, and they just kept coming back."
Given their five-game road playoff losing streak, many figured the Trail Blazers would have to come back to Portland to try to win the series. They were as concerned as anybody about their inability to win on the road. They had read Fitzsimmons' needling comments about it in the local newspapers and used it as a rallying point.
"We showed the rest of the country we could win on the road," said Drexler, who also had 23 points.
"To some extent it's true, because we've been struggling on the road," Porter added. "But we knew we could. It was just a matter of executing. Whenever it gets down to a close game, we have about four or five go-to guys."
Now, the Trail Blazers will either go to Auburn Hills, Mich., to meet the Detroit Pistons in the finals or stay in Portland and host the Chicago Bulls.