The 1975/76 Suns are among the most unlikely NBA finalists in history. The franchise had not been in the playoffs for five seasons and with only 42 regular season wins, nothing predestined them to reach the Finals against the ogre of Boston, the Celtics having been champions in 1974.
But the formation of John MacLeod will do more than face the Celtics, it will shake them up. So that after four meetings, very physical with many faults, the two teams are tied (2-2). Game 5 in Boston, played on June 4, 1976, was therefore a turning point. It will become legendary.
However, the start of the meeting suggested a match without suspense. Boston took control in the first quarter (36-18) and it was only in the second half that Phoenix, with Paul Westphal, returned.
We go into overtime (95 everywhere), which cannot decide between the two teams (101-101). But who says legendary match, says disputed and questionable decision.
Forgot time-out and fake victory shot
At the end of overtime, Paul Silas takes the rebound after the Suns’ winning shot attempt. He asks for a time-out. Problem: the Celtics have no more. Theoretically, the referee should whistle a technical foul. But the official Richie Powers ignores (voluntarily, he will admit it later) this request, to avoid influencing this match with a referee’s decision.
With a three-point lead (109-106) and 19 seconds to play, and as the 3-point line did not yet exist, the Celtics seemed to have folded the deal in the second overtime. But Dick Van Arsdale, at first, reduced the mark, then Paul Westphal intercepted the ball. Curtis Perry takes a half-range shot, misses it but rebounds off John Havlicek and scores his second attempt. In a few moments, the Suns passed in front (109-110). Boston has four seconds to react.
Ball for John Havlicek who dribbled and scored at half distance, with the board. Celtics win 111-110! Except that…
“I put in and we thought we had won the match”, remember the one who was nicknamed “Hondo”. “I’m in the locker room, almost undressed, when someone comes to tell me that we have to leave to play the last second. »
A referee attacked, a technical fault sought and a shot of madness
Indeed, John Havlicek’s action had not exhausted the clock. The match descends into chaos, with fans on the floor, the scorer’s table overturned and referee Richie Powers who is even attacked by spectators. The decision is formal: Phoenix will have the last possession. But this meeting still holds many twists and turns.
Because Paul Westphal has an idea. As it stands, the Suns are in trouble, they have only one second left and no more time-outs. They must therefore go up the entire field to afford a good shot, so it’s mission impossible or almost. The point guard/back, a former Boston player by the way, therefore asks his coach to take a time-out. Logically, this time, the referees penalized the Arizona team with a technical foul. Jo Jo White goes over the line and scores that bonus free throw.
Result: the Suns are led 111-109. So why did you make this choice? To gain precious meters since now the throw-in will take place in midfield, and no longer under their circle. Phoenix can certainly no longer win the game, only equalize, but the probability of scoring is now higher than before. Benefit/risk calculation.
The tactics put in place by Paul Westphal are bearing fruit. Gar Heard scores one of the most incredible shots in NBA history, with an endless curve, on the head of Don Nelson. 111-111 everywhere, on the way to a third overtime.
Glenn McDonald, this hero
The improbable took place on this crazy June evening in Massachusetts. To counter fatigue, Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn decides to give a young player, Glenn McDonald, a chance.
“I saw that Paul Silas had made his sixth foul and I thought that Steve Kuberski was going to take his place and play strong winger”recalls the winger, who is then playing his second season of his short career, which ended in 1977. “But the coach called me. I jumped at the chance, because even if it was a mistake on his part, I wanted to be on the pitch before he realized it. He just told me to kill them because I was fresh. »
Indeed, he will score six points in 63 seconds, with in particular a big baseline shot, which will give the Celts a four-point lead. And the free throws that will seal this incredible meeting.
“The day after this big shoot, Red Auerbach asked me why I had taken it. All credit for that goes to Havlicek, he gave me the walkthrough for this style of backline situation. It was time to use it. When I got home that night, in my bed, I also wondered what I had achieved. »
Boston finally wins, at the end of the night, 128-126 and will be crowned at the end of Game 6, with Jo Jo White in MVP of the Finals.
47 years later, this game is still considered by some to be the greatest in NBA history, dubbed “The Greatest Game Ever Played”. True or false, it remains one of the most memorable encounters.