1976 NBA Finals: Boston 4, Phoenix 2
Triple-OT Classic Highlights Boston's 13th Title
The defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors compiled the best regular-season record in the league for 1975-76 with a respectable 59 wins. No longer were they the Cinderellas of the West. That role belonged to another upstart team, the Phoenix Suns, an 8-year-old franchise that started two rookies. They had finished the regular season at 42-40 but had gotten better with each game, and by the playoffs the Suns had arrived.
The Suns were no slouch replacements in the Finals. They had traded Charlie Scott to the Boston Celtics for sharpshooter Paul Westphal, and their phenomenal season grew out of that deal.
The Celtics came out on top in the East, although they weren't the same team that had won the championship in 1974. Don Chaney had moved on to the American Basketball Association, and Westphal, the third guard, now played for the Suns. Scott, a slight but wonderfully gifted guard at 6-foot-5 and 175 pounds, joined Jo Jo White in the Boston backcourt, which led to immediate speculation that one basketball wouldn't be enough for the two of them.
The Celtics were still coached by Tommy Heinsohn, and they still played that tough old brand of ball. In a display of team defense never equaled before or since, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens and Paul Silas -- the starting frontcourt -- were named to the league's All-Defensive First Team. That and their winning tradition made the Celtics big favorites against the Suns. There was even talk of a sweep. After all, Phoenix was a young team with a young coach, John MacLeod, who had a reputation as a motivator and a flashy dresser.
Wherever Phoenix went, Westphal was the designated driver. A fourth-year player out of Southern Cal, he was 6-foot-4 and a whiz at moving with or without the ball. That made him all the more important to Phoenix because he could get his shots without a lot of help. He also displayed acrobatic moves that thrilled the fans. A backup when he was with Boston, he became better with each game he started in Phoenix. Over the last half of the season his average soared to better than 23 points per game. Plus, he wasn't a bad defensive player, and he showed a knack for slipping into the passing lanes unnoticed to snatch the ball.
Age was again the dominant theme with the Celtics. Havlicek had torn a muscle in his left foot during the playoffs and was hobbling. Don Nelson was another graybeard off the bench. Like the Boston teams of the 1960s, they were frank in discussing it. "One of these nights," warned Silas, "we're going to reach back and nothing's going to be there."
The series at first appeared to be headed toward the predicted sweep. After all, the Suns hadn't beaten the Celtics since December 1974. Boston won the first game at home, 98-87, a surprisingly dull affair in which the Suns shot only 38 percent from the floor. "If felt more like January than May," Silas said afterward. "It didn't seem like a playoff game."
Then the Celtics took the second game in a rout, 105-90, after going on a 20-2 run in the third quarter.
The Suns stepped up their intensity for Game 3, played at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Sunday morning in order to accommodate television. (Suns general manager Jerry Colangelo later apologized to local clergy for the early tip-off time.) Boston didn't score for nearly five minutes at the outset of the second period and trailed 33-17 at one point. Then Phoenix's Ricky Sobers and Boston's Kevin Stacom got into a fistfight, and both were ejected.
Boston began to charge back in the third quarter and cut a lead that had once been 23 points down to two with three minutes left in the game. At that point, Suns center Alvan Adams came alive. The Rookie of the Year drove for two buckets, hit Westphal going to the hoop for another, then tipped in a Westphal miss moments later.
That was enough to get Phoenix a 105-98 win. Adams finished with 33 points and 14 rebounds. Both Scott and Cowens had fouled out -- Scott for the third straight game -- which left the Boston coaching staff fussing that the officials had been influenced by the media. The Celtics also picked up two technicals during the course of the game.
As expected, the officials made their statement in Game 4. Refs Don Murphy and Manny Sokol whistled 21 fouls in the first 10 minutes. Heinsohn responded by raging and stomping on the sideline and claimed later that the affair was pure "high school."
Havlicek and Cowens, however, called it straight up and said that Boston had persisted in committing stupid fouls. Even so, the game was anybody's to steal. When Sobers took the ball down the middle and hit a bank shot that put the Suns up by four points with 90 seconds left, the Celtics still had a chance to tie it. They lost, 109-107, when White's late jumper was off.
Tied at two games apiece, the series returned to Boston on Friday night, June 4, for a nationally televised game that treated the country to the best the NBA had to offer in one three-overtime package.
"That was the most exciting basketball game I've ever seen," said Rick Barry, who worked the event as part of the CBS broadcast crew. "They just had one great play after another. I'll never forget the end. Jo Jo White was so exhausted, he just sat down on the court. It was such an emotional and physical game for everybody involved."
It didn't exactly begin as a classic, however. After nine minutes Boston was up 32-12. The Celtics went on to score 38 points in the first quarter and seemed on the verge of breaking the Suns. Phoenix stayed in it somehow, cutting the deficit to 15 by the half. Then the Suns stepped up their defense and held Boston to a mere 34 points over the last two quarters of regulation. The two teams battled to a tight finish. Curtis Perry missed two free throws for Phoenix, and Havlicek did the same for Boston. Regulation ended with the score at 95-95.
The first overtime brought six more points for each team and a controversy for the ages. With time running off the clock, Silas signaled to official Richie Powers that he wanted a Boston timeout. The Celtics had none left, and according to the rules, Powers was supposed to call a technical on Silas for calling a timeout the team didn't have.
But the signal went unacknowledged, and time ran out. The Phoenix coaches were incensed. If the technical had been whistled, the officials would have awarded the Suns a free throw and a chance to win.
"It could have been over right there," said Barry. Instead, with midnight nearing, the marathon game went into a second overtime. Angry and drained as they were, the Suns stashed their complaints and went back to the fray.
The controversy only grew with the second overtime. With 15 seconds left, the Celtics owned a three-point lead and the Garden was rocking with chants of "We're No. 1." But at that point the teams took turns matching miracles. First, Dick Van Arsdale scored for Phoenix. Then Westphal got a steal, but Perry missed a 14-foot jumper. He rebounded and scored on the second effort to put the Suns up 110-109.
With four seconds left, the Celtics raced back upcourt, where Havlicek motored along the left side, cut toward the hoop, stopped and shoved up a 15-foot bank shot. When it fell through, the Garden erupted. The Celtics celebrated as hundreds of fans poured onto the floor, overwhelming the Garden's elderly and understaffed security force. A table was overturned and general mayhem prevailed, while Powers tried to get both coaches' attention.
The officials ruled that one second remained on the clock. It took some time for the public address announcer to communicate that to the crowd. Eventually, the security staff got the floor cleared, and play was set to resume. Phoenix would have to go the length of the floor to score with only a second remaining.
But during the delay Westphal had come up with an idea. Why not call a timeout, which the Suns didn't have? The officials would have to call a technical. The Celtics would get a free throw, but then the Suns would get the ball at halfcourt with a better shot to tie.
MacLeod agreed, and this time the officials called the technical. White hit the free throw, giving the Celtics a 112-110 lead. Then, as the hour neared midnight, the Suns went to Gar Heard on the inbounds pass.
Standing several feet beyond the top of the key, he arched a high turnaround shot that swished through the net, flooring the Celtics. With the score tied at 112 apiece, the game headed into a third overtime.
With most of his prime-timers on the bench with six fouls each, Heinsohn went rummaging among his troops to find someone to play. He settled on little-used Glenn McDonald, a 6-foot-6 forward who had been the team's No. 1 draft pick out of Long Beach State in 1974. His NBA career lasted just nine more games after the 1976 Finals, and he was released in the 1976-77 season by Milwaukee. But for five minutes of the third overtime, McDonald had the basketball world's attention. He scored six points, the last two on a short jumper, to give Boston a 128-126 win.
The Suns had gotten nothing for their effort except bruises. Afterward, they were more defiant than ever. "We know we're going to beat them." Heard declared. "It's going to take seven now, but we know we're going to beat them. We showed we came to play."
Trailing three games to two, the Suns headed home for Game 6. There, they traded hand checks with the Celtics in a defensive struggle. Each team scored 20 points in the first quarter, then Boston scored 18 in the second while holding the Suns to 13. Keith Erickson had attempted to play at the start of the second, but he reinjured his sprained ankle and never returned. After falling behind by 11, Phoenix caught up again in the third and actually took a 67-66 lead on a Sobers free throw with 7:25 left in the game.
But Cowens, Havlicek and Scott took control from there. Havlicek hit two free throws; then Cowens stole the ball, drove, scored, drew the foul and made the extra shot for a three-point play. Cowens then scored two baskets and Havlicek another to put it away.
During the run, Phoenix's only response was four free throws. The Celtics rode their surge to an 87-80 win and their 13th championship.
"We had to gut it out all the way," Heinsohn told the gathering of writers after the game. "Phoenix has a fine team with a great shooter. When the game was up for grabs, it was a question of pure guts. Everyone was tired, but our guys have been there before and did it."
Much of the Boston run had been fueled by Scott's three steals. He also scored nine points in the fourth period, finishing the game with 25 points and 11 rebounds. The outburst knocked him out of an 11-for-44 shooting slump through the first five games of the series. In all five he had fouled out.
White had scored 15 points and had led Boston throughout the series with 130 points in six games; he was named the series MVP. "Our offense really wasn't that great," he admitted later. "But defense will do it for you every time, and our defense did it."
For the eighth time in his career, Havlicek had some championship champagne. "You get yourself so worked up psychologically and physically that you wonder at times if it's really worth it," he said. "But after it's over, it feels like 15,000 years lifted off your shoulders."
He was asked if winning ever got old. He took another sip. "It never gets old," he replied. "It gets old only if you lose."
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