Almost exactly four decades ago on June 4 the Boston Celtics hosted the Phoenix Suns in the pivotal fifth game of the 1976 NBA championship finals, with the surprisingly tight series between league royalty and a Cinderella upstart tied 2-2.
No one could have known all the incredible twists and turns the contest routinely referred to as the greatest NBA game ever would take on that early summer Friday night, but before it finally ended well after midnight EST both teams, the fans and the viewing audience were exhilarated and exhausted.
NBA TV recently ran a two-hour retrospective on the classic contest, updated with interspersed interviews from many of the key players from both clubs, as well as CBS announcers Brent Musburger and Rick Barry.
Ironically, Barry's defending champion Warrior team had been upset at home in game seven by the Suns in the 1976 Western Conference Finals after posting the league's best record, a fate this year's fellow Golden State repeat-minded squad narrowly escaped.
This season's historic Warrior team became the first NBA club to rally from a 3-1 deficit to win a conference title since the Celtics did it in 1981 to the 76ers behind Larry Bird.
Led by ex-Celtic guard Paul Westphal and Rookie of the Year center Alvan Adams, Phoenix caught fire and upset the 59-23 Warriors to reach their first NBA title series.
In 1976 the Celtics won the first two games of the NBA Finals at home by 11 and 13 points, respectively, over the Cinderella Suns, who were just 42-40 in the regular season.
Back home for games three and four, the young Suns evened the series with a 105-98 game three victory and a 109-107 thriller in the fourth contest. In that game, Jo Jo White missed a right wing jumper at the buzzer to tie the series up 2-2.
Back in the Boston Garden for game five on a Friday night, the Celtics fans were riled up and ready to put the upstart Suns in their place. Musburger noted that the rowdy crowd had been drinking well before the 9 p.m. tip-off, and the scene was as raucous as any he had seen in the NBA to that time.
Led by the sharpshooting of 14th-year star John Havlicek, who was starting his first game of the series after being plagued by a foot injury, Boston raced to a 28-10 lead and was on top 36-18 after one period of play.
Boston stretched its lead to 22 points at one juncture before the young Suns began to peck away at their big deficit, pullling within 61-45 at the half.
Phoenix's youthful starting lineup averaged just 24.6 years of age, and only sixth man Dick Van Arsdale (32) plus fellow reserves Keith Erickson (31) and Pat Riley (30) were the lone Suns over 27 on the entire roster.
Meanwhile, three of Boston's top six players Boston were well over 30, and no one in their top eight rotation was under 27. The championship window was closing for the Celtics, with Havlicek and sixth man Don Nelson nearing 36 and Paul Silas almost 33. In addition after years of deep playoff runs in a fast-breaking offense, the Boston legs carried even more added mileage.
As a massive underdog, Phoenix was playing loose while the veteran Celtics shouldered most of the pressure and enjoyed little national sympathy from casual fans due to their heritage of having captured 12 of the previous 19 NBA crowns.
Adding to the series intrigue was the fact that the two clubs shared several players. Westphal had blossomed into an All-Star in his first season in the valley of the sun, and would become the league's best all-around guard from 1976-80.
Westy had served as a key reserve for his first three seasons in Celtic green, but Red Auerbach made one of his few mistakes and sent the talented guard to Phoenix for Charlie Scott after Boston lost 4-2 to the Bullets in the 1975 Eastern finals.
Red felt Paul wasn't fast enough to play the up-tempo Celtic style after starting big guard Don Chaney defected to the ABA. He also knew the window was closing and felt the more veteran Scott gave Boston a better chance to hoist banner number 13 than the flashy Westphal.
Also, Red had already secured the services of rebounding and defensive force Paul Silas in 1972 from the Suns as well. The unselfish power forward proved to be the last piece of the rebuilding puzzle for the Celtics after the Russell era ended in 1969.
In Paul's four seasons as a Celtic, Boston went to four consecutive Eastern Conference finals and added two more banners. Although Silas was not a good shooter, he teamed with the relentless Dave Cowens up front to provide Boston with the best rebounding duo in the NBA, as well as one if its top defensive tandems.
Westphal had played a major role in helping Boston beat Milwaukee in game seven of the 1974 Finals on the road. The second-year guard came off the bench in place of a foul-plagued Chaney, scored 12 points and hounded the retiring great Oscar Robertson into a 2-of-13 shooting performance in his final game as the Celtics won their first post-Russell title, 102-87.
Now he was bent on proving Red was wrong by leading the Suns to a historic comeback upset. "It was disappointing to be traded," Westphal admitted, going to an expansion club coached by third-year man John MacLeod (former coach at Oklahoma).
The unheralded Adams turned pro a year early to rejoin Mac for 13 seasons in Phoenix and was named the league's top rookie after averaging 19 points and nine rebounds per game while displaying some of the best post passing in the NBA.
The hard-charging Suns got hot and outscored Boston 23-7 to open the third period, tying it 68-68 on two Adams foul shots with four minutes to play in the quarter.
"No matter what the deficit, we always came back," recalled high-leaping Sun forward Garfield Heard, who would later play a major role in making the epic encounter into an all-time classic.
Celtic reserve forward Steve Kuberski nailed a long left corner jumper to give the Celtics the lead back, 70-68. Cowens then swished a pretty baseline jump hook after an offensive rebound. Adams hung in the air and answered by banking in a left wing 14-footer.
Boston reserve guard Glenn McDonald drilled a jumper yet Adams responded by sinking a long right corner shot. Scott drained a turnaround shot from just beyond the foul line. A Cowens free throw, as he drew a crucial fifth foul on Adams, pushed the lead to 77-72 after three periods.
The Celtics seemed to be in control when Cowens swooped into the lane for a hook shot that capped a 13-9 start to the fourth period. With just over five minutes left in regulation, Boston was on top by a 90-81 count.
Adams kept the Suns in striking distance as he popped open behind a left baseline screen and swished a 17-footer. Moments later, the clutch Havlicek weaved his way through traffic and splashed a right baseline leaner.
"John had the great ability to block everything around him out," noted his former teammate and then-coach, Tom Heinsohn.
Westphal nailed a field goal and then the lithe Adams showed off his versatility. The 6-9 jumping jack grabbed a defensive rebound, led the fast break and found Westphal with a midair bounce pass through traffic. The ex-Celtic guard drained a right side 20-footer to bring Phoenix within 92-87 as Heinsohn signaled for timeout.
Rookie Suns guard Ricky Sobers hit a pull-up lane jumper in transition to edge Phoenix within three at the 1:50 mark.
Cowens fed White with a pretty backdoor feed, but he missed the layup. However, Silas tipped the misfire in. Westphal posted up and banked in a 12-foot turnaround. As Scott dribbled over halfcourt, Paul then poked the ball away from behind Charlie right to Adams.
Alvan hit Paul with a long pass and he drove in for an off-balance driving three-point layup that tied it, 94-94. His foul shot gave him nine of the last 11 Suns points. Making things worse for Boston, Scott fouled out for the fifth game in a row in the Finals on the play with 39 seconds remaining.
"That was one of the greatest individual efforts I have ever seen," exclaimed Musburger.
White missed an open jumper from the top of the key, and Cowens was called for a foul while grabbing the offensive rebound.
"That was a gutsy call," said Barry. Curtis Perry made the initial foul shot to give Phoenix its first lead of the entire night 95-94, but missed the second free toss with 22 seconds left.
"That was the biggest free throw of his career...I know Curtis feels bad about it but there is no excuse for missing a free throw in that situation," intoned Barry.
Havlicek was fouled by Adams while shooting a baseline jumper with 19 seconds to go. Adams fouled out with 20 points on the key play and Hondo made the first free throw to tie it.
Musburger commented that "if I could choose anyone in all the world to take this free throw with 19 seconds left down 95-94, you're looking at him."
Barry, the league's greatest foul shooter at the time with his underhanded "granny" shooting style, replied, "I take offense to that, Brent." Musburger laughed and replied, "Rick, you're not in this one."
Hondo then saw his second shot spin out, yet the rebound was tapped back out to Boston. However, John's 20-footer was just long and the Suns rebounded, calling timeout with three seconds left after a slow finger on the timer cost them a tick (this being the era before tenths of seconds were shown on the clock).
However, the aggressive Cowens alertly broke up Heard's long crosscourt in-bounds pass intended for Perry, and the battle went to its first overtime.
Of course the Suns still argue that Silas, who was signaling for a timeout the Celtics did not have as time ran out, should have been assessed a technical.
Phoenix assistant coach Al Bianchi went so far as to have faux title rings made for the Suns after the non-call by referee Richie Powers, who was standing right by Silas as he formed a T with his hands.
In the initial overtime Boston scored the first four points. Silas tipped in a Nelson 15-footer that rimmed out, and a 17-foot jumper from the circle by Cowens over backup center Dennis Awtrey tickled the twines.
The Suns came up with consecutive steals as the Celtics sought to build their lead to six. Phoenix finally scored its first OT points on a Heard lane jumper with 2:12 left in the extra session.
White swished a left baseline jumper to put Boston back on top 101-97. Perry banked in a line-drive 11-foot shot with 90 seconds left.
Heard drained another short fadeaway jumper over Havlicek from the left baseline to tie it 101-all. Boston missed a chance to regain the lead, giving Phoenix a chance to win it despite trailing almost every second of the nearly first 53 minutes.
Cowens applied great defensive pressure to disrupt the final Suns possession. Sobers drove to the left baseline and had the ball stripped away by White with three seconds left, complaining bitterly that he was fouled, to no avail. But Havlicek's desperation heave missed everything to force a second OT.
Southpaw Cowens drove left, handed the ball off to Jo Jo and White swished a 17-foot right baseline jumper. A Sobers post-up short banker tied it 103-103, but Havlicek fired a slick bullet feed to White, who drilled a right side 15-footer.
Sobers responded by hitting an 18-footer from the right baseline, and his foul shot after being fouled by Nelson gave the Suns just their second lead of the entire game at 106-105.
Cowens canned two clutch foul shots to regain the lead, and then he soared to rebound a Sobers baseline misfire with two minutes left in OT number two.
Moments later Sobers missed again and this time Silas pulled down the carom. Boston patiently probed the Phoenix defense and found Cowens posted inside on the right baseline. With a minute left, Dave spun into a double team, crashed into Awtrey and tossed in an eight-footer as the whistle blew.
However, instead of a potential game-breaking three-point play, Cowens was called for an offensive foul, his sixth. Boos cascaded down on the refs as the fiery redhead voiced his displeasure with the call before trudging to the Boston bench.
"What a turnaround that is," Musburger aptly noted.
Havlicek was floored by an Awtrey screen as Heinsohn screamed for a foul. No call was made, but then Awtrey fouled out pushing Hondo on a rebound. Boston pushed the lead to three and again seemed on the verge of victory.
Sun veteran swingman van Arsdale, playing with a broken left wrist, nailed a left side jumper. Westphal then swiped the in-bounds pass from Havlicek and saved it to Van Arsdale, who hit Perry for a left side jumper that put the Suns ahead 110-109 with five seconds left.
Barry smartly noted at courtside that the Celtics were likely to go to their clutch veteran leader Havlicek for the final shot.
Taking the ball out at halfcourt after a timeout, Nelson passed in to Hondo. John drove left on Sobers, hung in the air, leaned toward the hoop and released a runner just before he hit the ground. His 12-foot runner banked through for a 111-110 lead with two seconds left.
Hundreds of fans rushed the court, thinking the game was over as time ran ou ton the scoreboard. An excited Hondo led the Celtic charge into the locker room. A Celtic fan, perhaps irate over the Cowens sixth foul call, punched referee Powers. Sun forward Perry pulled a fan off the official as the Garden police surrounded the beleaguered ref.
"I will never forget that scene on the court," said Musburger.
Safely in the locker room celebrating the victory, the Celtic players had cut off their tape and removed their shoes. Several minutes later, they were called back onto the floor by referee Don Murphy, who noted that time still remained on the clock, while security personnel tried to clear the parquet to play the final second.
Westphal, in the interim, cleverly decided to take an extra timeout to get a technical foul on purpose. The T allowed White to convert a one-shot foul for a 112-110 lead, but moved the ball from the endline to halfcourt on the ensuing Phoenix possession.
Growing up in the Los Angeles area, Westy had seen USC football coach John McKay pull a similar ploy at the end of games while trailing. McKay would stop the clock by calling timeouts he did not have, incurring a five-yard penalty but stopping the clock to give his team a chance to rally.
"Kudos to Westphal for coming up with that idea," said Cowens years later. Basketball savant Larry Bird admitted that even he would not have thought of the technical foul ploy Westphal ingeniously came up with in the heat of the moment to help force the third overtime.
The Phoenix play was designed for Perry to pass the ball to Westphal in the right corner for a final shot (remember this was before the three-pointer was adopted by the NBA), but the Celtics smartly anticipated where they were going and doubled the Sun guard.
Perry then found Heard at the top of the key. Despite being well-guarded by Nelson, Heard caught the ball, turned and launched his trademark rainbow 21-footer just before the buzzer went off.
"Garfield's shot was impossible to block with his high release and high arch," said Westphal. "I was covered and Curtis made a great pass."
The shot seemed to scrape the Garden rafters before settling softly into the hoop. Sobers grabbed the ball as Murphy signaled the shot counted, and tossed it high into the air as if to thank the heavens.
"Unbelievable," screamed Musburger. "I don't believe it. Garfield Heard tied it again!"
Barry noted that Boston should never have been in that position after building a 22-point lead at home. But the young Suns, playing with house money, simply would not go away. They were not intimidated by all the banners and the Garden ghosts, and now with Cowens out one had to wonder if the Suns had the momentum and were about to finish off one of the great comebacks in championship history.
"It is after midnight, but the Phoenix Suns refuse to turn into pumpkins," noted Musburger.
Nelson banked in a 16-footer from the left side for the first basket of the third OT but Sobers answered. Silas then fouled out fighting for a rebound, becoming the fifth player disqualified in the marathon.
But then little-used Celtic reserves Jim Ard and McDonald stepped up big in the third OT. "I was ready when my number was called," said McDonald.
The sweet-shooting McDonald hit a basket and canned a baseline fadeaway off a Hondo feed.
Westphal banked in a spinning, off-balance 19-foot fadeaway banker with a miute left to pull within 122-120. White sank a long jumper to rebuild the lead to four.
Van Arsdale missed from the side and McDonald leaped high to grab the rebound before being fouled. A weary White took a well-deserved seat on the parquet floor as McDonald went to the charity stripe.
The Long Beach State product hit both foul shots to give him six of the 14 Celtic third OT points with 36 seconds to go. Boston seemed to finally have some breathing room, with a six-point edge. Sobers drove in for a finger roll at the 33-second mark to inch within 126-122.
Backup center Ard drained a pair of clutch free throws after he was intentionally fouled, giving him eight points. Westphal urgently drove the length of the court, jumped in the air near the left elbow of the foul line, did a 360-degree midair spin past Hondo and banked in an amazing 12-footer.
"Paul Westphal with an incredible shot," enthused Barry. "But I think it's a little too late."
Years later, Heinsohn would compare Westphal to Larry Bird for his ambidexterity and extraordinary body control.
McDonald then missed an ill-advised alley-oop off an Ard pass to give the Suns life, and Westphal sank a layup with 12 seconds left to pull Phoenix within 128-126.
"Just when I think it's over someone makes an unbelievable play," marveled Musburger.
Putting on a desperation fullcourt press, Westphal almost got a hand on a long Nelson pass upcourt as he dove into the sidelines empty-handed. White dribbled between the circles and along the midcourt line, stalling out the final seconds as Van Arsdale frantically tried to foul while time expired.
"Five, four, three, two," Musburger bellowed dramatically, his voice drowned out as White dribbled out the last second a la Bob Cousy.
Jo Jo hoisted up a halfcourt hook after the buzzer sounded to finally end the three-OT marathon. Hundreds of jubilant fans again rushed the court, this time for good.
"It was so exciting that night; I couldn't sleep," said McDonald later. Heinsohn was so dehydrated and drained that he fainted during the post-game press conference.
"What great plays there were; it was both teams making great shots," recalled Adams.
White, playing 58 of a possible 63 minutes, topped all scorers with 33 points. Westphal and Sobers led the Suns with 25 points apiece, while Perry contributed 23. Adams added 20 and Heard 17.
Cowens scored 26 points before fouling out. An injured Havlicek netted 22 big markers while Silas added 17. And McDonald tallied the eight biggest points of his brief pro career.
"It is the greatest sporting event I have ever broadcast," said veteran multi-sport announcer Musburger, still going strong for ESPN some 40 years later.
Two days later at Phoenix, the drained teams played a low-scoring battle in game six. Boston led 38-33 at halftime, and a late surge by the fiery Cowens led Gang Green to an 87-80 triumph that clinched their 13th championship banner.
But the epic series was much more hard-fought than anticipated, and signaled the end of the second Celtic dynasty as age, injury and ill-advised trades took their toll. It wasn't until the arrival of Bird over three years later that the third Boston dynasty would begin and revive the franchise, as well as the NBA.
Ironically, 17 years later Westphal became the only man to be directly involved in both NBA Finals triple overtime thrillers. This time he was a first-year head coach of the Suns when they won at Chicago in game three of the 1993 title series.
But just like the 1976 Finals, his Suns team came up short in a memorable six-game series. And no championship series contest in the 40 years since that miraculous game five unfolded has matched, or even approached it.