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Throwback Thursday: Suns, Celtics clash in "The Greatest Game Ever Played"

In the 1976 NBA Finals, the upstart Phoenix Suns faced squared off with the juggernaut Boston Celtics. What should have been a laugher of a series instead became one for the ages, culminating in an epic Game 5 at the Boston Garden.

In 1976 the Phoenix Suns franchise was in only it's eighth year of existence. The Boston Celtics had already hung 12 championship banners by this time, their most recent coming only two seasons prior. It wasn't difficult to pick a favorite when the two teams squared off in the Finals that year, but as history has often taught us, that is why they play the game.

While the seemingly inevitable 13th championship for the Celtics indeed came to fruition, the Suns managed to make the most out of their ticket to the big stage, notably with a triple-overtime Game 5 that featured a series of bizarre occurrences that were far stranger than fiction.

If it didn't happen, you probably wouldn't believe me.

On this Throwback Thursday we revisit that game -- often dubbed the greatest game in NBA history. Don't forget your short shorts.

The Sunderella Suns

The 1975/76 Phoenix Suns were led by burgeoning All-Star Paul Westphal at shooting guard and reigning Rookie Of The Year Alvan Adams at center. On the wings were Curtis Perry, Gar Heard, and the "Original Sun" Dick Van Arsdale, by then considerably past his prime.

They weren't particularly dominant that year -- falling to 18-27 after a loss to the Bucks on January 29 -- but thanks to a late-season surge in which they won 10 of their last 14 games, they snuck into the playoffs in what was a rather pathetic year for the Western Conference. They were one of only three teams out West to post a winning record that season.

The Suns rode their late-season surge into the playoffs, dispatching the Sonics in 6 games before meeting the defending champion Golden State Warriors. After falling behind 3-2 in the series, the Suns squeaked out a 105-104 win in Phoenix behind 24 points from reserve guard Keith Erickson. They went on to shock the champs in Game 7 at Oakland, scoring the franchise's first ticket to the Finals.

They were greeted by 5,000 fans upon their return to Phoenix, and had a date with the illustrious Boston Celtics.

The Celtics

The C's were led by Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White, Charlie Scott and a 35-year-old John Havlicek. They did what the Celtics always did -- finish with the best record and storm through the playoffs. There aren't any compelling storylines here unless you're a Celtics fan and I won't bore you and myself by going into detail -- I only bring them up to establish the antagonist in the story.

Moving on.

The Finals, and Game 5

The Suns weren't expected to challenge the mighty Celtics, and after dropping the first two games on the road the city of Boston already had the champagne on ice.

Back in Phoenix, the Suns notched their first Finals win behind 33 points from Adams. In Game 4, Adams and Westphal combined for 48 points and just like that the series was tied, setting the stage for a pivotal Game 5 back at the Garden.

In Game 5 the Celtics raced to a 22 point lead before the Suns stormed back in the second half, eventually tying the game and forcing overtime in front of the stunned Boston faithful, but not without controversy.

The Time-Out

With three seconds left in a tie game and the Suns inbounding from halfcourt, Gar Heard's pass was tipped in the air and secured by Jo Jo White. With one second remaining, Paul Silas signaled for a timeout directly in front of referee Richie Powers. Powers did not acknowledge the request and time expired.

There was just one problem ... the Celtics did not have a timeout and the Suns should have been rewarded a technical free-throw which could have put them ahead with only a second remaining. Despite the fact that Paul Westphal noticed, as did color-commentator Rick Barry, as surely did plenty of the thousands of people inside the Boston Garden, the teams headed to the sidelines and the game went into overtime.

According to rumors from within the Suns organization, Powers acknowledged years later that he indeed saw Silas motion for a time-out but he "didn't want to see the championship decided on a technicality".

Fun fact: It is common belief that the Silas timeout occurred at the end of the first overtime, which I was under the impression of as I began writing this article. The source of the confusion is that at the end of the first overtime, Silas indeed corrals a rebound and signals for a timeout, except at that time the Celtics had a timeout to give and they were awarded one. It was in regulation that he signaled for a timeout that they didn't have -- he just happened to be in a similar position at two different junctions of the game. See for yourself in this video (skip to the 48:16 mark, or watch the whole damn thing if you don't mind Spanish-speaking announcers).

The First Overtime

Neither teams were willing to give an inch. What had been a frantic 4th quarter gave way to a defensive stalemate. Only 12 total points were scored and the first overtime ended with a tie score of 101-101.

The Second Overtime

Things loosened up a bit as the team's started finding the net again. With a minute to go and the Celtics leading 107-106, Cowens bullied his way inside and was whistled for an offensive foul, fouling him out of the game. After a moving screen violation called on Suns' reserve Dennis Awtrey, the Celtics took a 3-point lead on a Jo Jo White layup with 19 seconds remaining (keep in mind there was no three-point line in those days).

Westphal Strikes

Van Arsdale scored on a quick jumper to cut the Boston lead to one with 15 seconds remaining. As the Celtics inbounded the ball, Westphal, who was second in the NBA in steals that season, struck seemingly out of nowhere and swatted the ball away. He then saved it from going out of bounds by the Celtics' bench and passed to Van Arsdale, who quickly fed Curtis Perry for a jumper.

Perry missed, but corralled the ball after it bounced off the hands of Havlicek. He fired again from the baseline and this time hit paydirt, putting the Suns up a point with 5 seconds to go, in the F%@KING FINALS AT THE F%@KING BOSTON GARDEN.

Havlicek Responds, Pandemonium Ensues

The Celtics then inbounded to Havlicek, who took rookie defensive phenom Ricky Sobers off the dribble and hit a running bankshot with two seconds left on the clock. The crowd immediately stormed the floor despite the fact that there was still time on the clock. The Celtics headed to the locker room, thinking that they had won the game. The scorers' tables were toppled over. As the crowd swirled about on the floor, suddenly Richie Powers found himself in a physical fight with a fan and the two tumbled to the floor amidst the mayhem.

The referees, the Suns players and even police officers struggled to restore order on the court and the game officials eventually convened to determine how much time was left in the game. Powers, who was having a hell of a day at this point, incorrectly awarded the Suns one second of game time even though Havlicek's shot clearly passed through the hoop with two seconds remaining (no replay for the officials back then).

The Suns now faced the daunting task of having to inbound the ball from under the Celtics' goal with only a second to score. Remember that business earlier about the time-out Paul Silas called that should have been a technical foul? The Suns made sure to take advantage of the rule this time around and called for a time-out that they didn't have. Although this awarded the Celtics a technical free-throw, which was converted by White, it allowed the Suns to inbound from the ball from halfcourt rather than the opposing baseline.They were down two points with a second left.

The Shot Heard 'Round The World

The atmosphere was palpable. Celtics fans ominously crowded the baselines, ready to again storm the court in victory as soon as the buzzer sounded. They were held back only by a few uniformed security personnel. Fans even encroached on the Suns' huddle as coach John McLeod drew up the upcoming play. The Garden was begging to explode. The game just needed to end.

The teams took the court, finally ready to play out the last second of the overtime period. The refs stalked the baselines, keeping the teeming mob at bay. Curtis Perry was set to inbound from halfcourt. The fans were seemingly right on top of him. The play began.

Perry inbounded to Gar Heard, who was set up at the top of the circle with Don Nelson (yes, that Don Nelson) closely pinned against him. Heard received the ball, turned against Nelson as he rose, and lofted a high-arching jumper.


Brent Musburger and Rick Barry exploded as the shot rattled through ... "GOOOOOOOOD!!!!"

What was only moments earlier an environment so alive and chaotic was now silent and nearly motionless, save for Heard and his teammates quickly hustling back to the sidelines to get ready for the third overtime and sports announcers across the basketball planet completely losing their minds. The Celtics fans stood stunned, warily looking about each other in disbelief.

The Third Overtime, and the Aftermath

In anti-climactic fashion the Celtics won the battle of endurance in the third overtime with something called Glenn McDonald sealing the victory with 8 points in the extra period -- his only points of the day. This must be like battling the Spurs to a third overtime period only to have Jeff Ayres drive home the deathblow.

Boston fans were finally able to storm the court -- for real, this time.

The Celtics did what championship teams tend to do and didn't let the nonsense go any further, sinking the Suns in a defensive struggle in Game 6 and claiming their 13th championship banner. Jo Jo White took home Finals MVP. So it goes.

For the Celtics it was another footnote to their illustrious history, but for the Suns it was the stuff of pure legend. They had galvanized the city and their fans and the organization was brimming with optimism. Little did anyone know that it would be 17 years before the Suns would find their way to the Finals again, this time as the doomed favorite rather than the plucky challenger.

Richie Powers unfortunately survived the incident. I wish I could tell you that he was dragged off the court against his will by a grizzly bear, but unfortunately this is no fairy-tale world. Suns' assistant coach Al Bianchi exacted a bit of personal vengeance by ordering a custom-made championship ring with the words "Fuck You, Richie Powers" inscribed on it, which is an amazing story and 100% true so don't tell me I never wrote a happy ending.

I leave you with the video footage of the gloriously insane second overtime. Enjoy, and see you next time.


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