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Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals is often referred to as the greatest game in basketball history. It was a matchup between the Phoenix Suns and the Boston Celtics that went all the way to triple overtime. However, before we jump into that game, we need to find out how we got here.
The Suns’ season started in May of 1975, when the NBA Draft took place. The previous year, Phoenix finished with only 32 wins, and they were awarded the fourth pick. They used this to select 6’9″ center Alvan Adams from Oklahoma. This move helped turn the franchise around. In his rookie season, Adams averaged 19 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per game, and, despite being undersized at his position, he also had 1.5 steals per game and blocked 1.5 shots per game. This led to a place in the All-Star game and the Rookie of the Year award. However, before the draft, the Suns traded three-time All-Star (in three full seasons in the NBA) Charlie Scott to the Celtics for Paul Westphal and a second and third round pick. Westphal, on the other hand, averaged 7.3 points in his three seasons in the league. At the time, this trade seemed somewhat lopsided. However, Westphal would shine as bright as the sun (pun intended) when given more playing time. Today, the trade is considered one of the best in Phoenix history. During the season, Westphal led the team in minutes, scoring, and steals per game; Curtis Perry had the highest field goal percentage and the most rebounds per game; Keith Erickson led in free throw percentage; and Alvan Adams led the team in assists (unusual for the team’s center) and blocks, an odd combination. The Suns ended with a 42-40 record, fourth in the West. This franchise had only made the playoffs once before, and had never won a series. In the first round, they faced off against the Seattle Supersonics, and they took that series in six games. Next, Phoenix met the defending champions, Rick Barry and the Golden State Warriors. In a thrilling series that went to seven games, the underdog Suns took down the number one seed in the West. That sent them to the Finals, where they met the…
Boston’s road to the Finals was much less dramatic, and the team reaching the Finals was predictable; Since the creation of the team in 1946 to 1975, they won 12 league championships, the most of any team by far. In 1974, Dave Cowens and John Havlicek led the Celtics to their first championship without the legendary Bill Russell. At the beginning of the season, of course, the Celtics made the Westphal-Scott trade, sending Westphal and three picks to Phoenix. While this trade is now thought of as one of the worst in franchise history, it would not hurt the team too bad, as Scott was still a good player; he averaged over 17 points per game with the Celtics, down from 24.3 the season before. Boston finished the 1975-76 season with a 54-28 record and earned a first round bye in the playoffs. Cowens led the squad in points, rebounds, blocks, and field goal percentage (minimum 10 points per game) this season, tallying a stat line of 19, 16, 0.9 while shooting about 47% from the field. JoJo White led the team in assists with 5.4, and split the steals title with Scott and Havlicek at 1.3. Havlicek also led the team in free throw percentage (minimum 1.5 attempts per game). The Celtics took care of both the Buffalo Braves and the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games (coincidentally, the Celtics won the same four games in each series: 1, 2, 5, and 6). They set to face off against the Suns, who won 12 fewer games than them during the regular season.
Games one, two, and five took place at the Boston Garden because of the Celtics’ home-court advantage, while games three, four, and six took place at Phoenix’s Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. In the first game of the series, Cowens put up a triple-double and the Celtics won by 11. In game two, the Celtics won again, this time by 15, despite a 28-point effort by Westphal. Game three saw Alvan Adams drop 33 points and 14 rebounds, and the Suns cut the series lead to 2-1. The following game was very close, but Westphal led the Suns to a 109-107 victory with 28 points, including 10 free throws.
On June 4th, 1976, the Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics met at the Boston Garden for the all-important game five. With the series tied 2-2, the winner of this game would have a significant advantage to win the series. Shortly after the tip-off, this game looked as if it would be anything but exciting. At the end of the first quarter the score was Celtics 36, Suns 18. The Celtics extended their lead to 22 points by the second quarter, but Phoenix started crawling back. After two quarters, Boston led 61-45. Then, in the third quarter, the Suns tied the game at 68, and the Celtics only led by five after three quarters. With a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, the Celtics were still ahead of the Suns. Then, Westphal scored 5 straight points, including a three-point play, to tie the game at 94 apiece. Curtis Perry of the Suns and John Havlicek exchanged free throws to tie the game again at 95. However, Alvan Adams committed his sixth personal foul, fouling out of the game. Havlicek missed a jump shot, and Gar Heard of the Suns missed his own shot to win the game. In overtime, the Celtics went up by four early, but Phoenix came back and tied it up at 101-101. At the end of the period, Boston’s Paul Silas called for a timeout, despite the fact that his team had none left. But the referees missed it, and the game went into the second overtime. The Suns took a one point lead before the Celtics scored four straight, and led 109-106. Dick Van Arsdale of the Suns hit a jumpshot to cut the lead to one. Then, Westphal got a steal and passed it to Perry, who missed his shot but got his own rebound. He then made his second jump shot and the Suns led 110-109. John Havlicek hit a running shot on the next possession at the buzzer, and the Celtics won the game…or did they? The clock did not stop after Havlicek’s shot, which went through the net with two seconds left in the game. The fans had stormed the court, and when referee Richie Powers told the score table to put one second on the clock, one fan attacked him. During the delay, Paul Westphal had an idea. The Suns were going to take the ball out on the opposite side of the court, so he suggested to coach John MacLeod that the team should call timeout, even though they didn’t have one, and take the technical foul. This way, the Celtics would get a free throw, but the Suns would get take out the ball near half-court. MacLeod agreed, so they asked Powers for a timeout. JoJo White converted the free throw, extending the lead to 112-110. Curtis Perry inbounded the ball and found Gar Heard near the top of the key. Heard shot a turn-around jumper over a defender at the buzzer, and he sunk it. This sent the game to a third overtime. “Somebody must be on our side up there,” legendary Suns broadcaster Al McCoy proclaimed. The teams were forced to rely on their bench to step up, as players inevitably began to foul out. Forward Glenn McDonald, who averaged 13.6 minutes per game in his second season in the league, became the game’s hero. In the third overtime, he scored 6 points in less than a minute to give the Celtics the lead. With his team trailing by 6, Westphal drained a basket, got a steal, and scored again, making it 128-126. He attempted to get another steal, but he could not, and the clock hit all zeroes.
Following the exhausting marathon of a game, Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn passed out in the locker room and was taken to the hospital. Despite losing a heartbreaker, Heard said, “We know we’re going to beat them. It’s going to take seven now, but we know we’re going to beat them. We showed we came to play.” Game six took place at the Arizona Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum. Up to this point, the home team had won every game of the series, but this changed, as the Celtics took game 6 in a low-scoring affair by the score of 87-80. They took home their 13th NBA championship, and JoJo White was named Finals MVP. Game 5 is often considered the greatest game ever played, and Heard’s shot is known as the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” The 1976 Suns have been lovingly known as the “Sunderella Suns”, one of the best underdog stories in league history. They remain the team with the worst record to reach the Finals to this day. For the Celtics, Dave Cowens, John Havlicek, JoJo White, Don Nelson (as coach), and Tom Heinsohn (as player and coach) have made the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, while, for the Suns, only Pat Riley (as coach) has been enshrined in Springfield, Massachusetts. The Celtics have won four more championships since that 1976 win, and the Suns lost in their only Finals appearance since (1993 vs. Chicago Bulls).
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