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PHOENIX – Entering the 1997 NBA Playoffs, no one in league history had drained more than eight 3-pointers in one postseason game.
That record was set in 1993 when Phoenix Suns guard Dan Majerle caught fire to help beat the Seattle SuperSonics in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.
Four years later, the Suns were battling Seattle again, this time in the first round. The Sonics were 57-25 and held the second seed in the West. The Suns were a 40-42 seven seed, but they were no ordinary seven seed.
It was an odd year in metro Phoenix. The Suns had traded former MVP Charles Barkley to Houston during the previous offseason and coach Cotton Fitzsimmons resigned after an 0-8 start.
The Suns began the year 0-13, but under new coach Danny Ainge, they finished red hot.
Phoenix won 18 of its last 23 games to reach the postseason. After winning 11 straight games in March, it became the first team in NBA history with a 10-game losing streak and winning streak in the same season.
“Terrible team at the start, pretty darn good team at the finish,” said Bob Young, the former Suns beat writer for the Arizona Republic. “So that’s why they really had a chance.”
They got hot at the right time, as did one of their starters: shooting guard Rex Chapman.
Chapman was 10 of 25 from deep over the last four games and scored 82 points during the stretch. The Sonics allowed the fewest points per game in the conference that season, but their weakness was defending the three.
The University of Kentucky graduate went to work quickly in Game 1 in Seattle on April 25, 1997.
On the first play, Suns point guard Jason Kidd dumped a pass to Chapman at the top of the key. Splash.
In the second quarter, Chapman really hit a groove. He nailed threes on back-to-back possessions early in the period and then did it again late in the half.
He capped off a 22-point first half by drilling a three in the face of Sonics star Shawn Kemp.
“He was just one of those guys that when he got hot, he could stay hot for a long time,” Young said. “He would get hot and be hot for the whole game.”
Chapman’s first shot of the second half was an open three in the corner. Splash.
After another, he entered the final 12 minutes with seven made threes.
But, he lost his touch for most of the period. With under three minutes to go, he did not have the record and the Suns were down by one.
Then, with 2:42 on the clock, Chapman nailed a catch-and-shoot three to tie Majerle and give Phoenix the lead. With 56 second left, he fired from way beyond the arc and connected, pure swish.
His teammates put their arms up, he was jumping up and down and the Suns took a commanding seven-point lead.
On the TV broadcast, Kevin Harlan exclaimed, “He got it! He got the record! Nine three-point shots for the boy king from Kentucky.”
In the postgame interview, Chapman said, “I knew if I got it, it was going in.”
Fittingly, Chapman iced the game with two free throws and the Suns prevailed 106-101.
Chapman, who had been released by the Miami Heat less than a year earlier and was signed by Phoenix for the veteran’s minimum, finished with 42 points, shooting 9 of 17 from beyond the arc.
“Just about any game he played, (hitting nine threes) was realistic,” Young said. “He’d done it before, just not in a playoff game.”
Chapman hit nine threes for Miami during a regular season showdown with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in 1996.
The Suns eventually lost the series three games to two, but they put up a fight. Chapman nailed one of the craziest off-balanced threes imaginable to send Game 4 to overtime, although the Suns lost that night.
Chapman’s record was tied several times but never broken until 2016 when Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson sunk 11 threes against the Oklahoma City Thunder (formerly known as the SuperSonics, funny enough) in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals.