Celtics

‘What the hell did I just do?’: The 1976 Celtics, the Suns, and the greatest game ever played

The Celtics' epic triple-overtime victory in Game 5 of the '76 NBA Finals remains the greatest game in league history. John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Paul Silas, and other members of that championship team share their memories.

The Celtics won a pair of championships in the '70s, but the '74 and '76 titles are often overlooked because they are sandwiched by the Bill Russell and Larry Bird eras. But the '76 Celtics played what is regarded as the greatest game in league history -- Game 5 of the '76 Finals against the Suns. Frank O’Brien/Globe File Photo

COMMENTARY

With 17 NBA championship banners hanging from the Garden rafters, the Boston Celtics rarely lack for a milestone or anniversary worth celebrating. This season has been especially rich for reminiscences – it marks the 50th, 40th and 30th anniversaries, respectively, of the 1966, ’76 and ’86 champs.

Among all of the Celtics victories through years, it is natural that some favorites remain more meaningful and memorable than others. Some legacies linger longer. The Bill Russell-anchored ’66 Celtics were a link in the greatest dynasty in sports history; that title, clinched in seven games over the Lakers, was the franchise’s eighth straight in what would become a run of 10 in 11 years.

Advertisement:

The ’86 Celtics were, at least in our parochial (and correct) opinion, the greatest single-season team in NBA history. Led by Larry Bird at his peak (he’d win his third straight league MVP award), they went 67-15 in the regular season, 15-3 during the postseason run that culminated with a six-game victory over the Houston Rockets in the Finals, and finished 50-1 at home (including the playoffs).

But what about that middle child? What about the Celtics spirits of ’76? Because they are sandwiched between the dynastic ’60s and the glorious ‘80s, the franchise’s championship teams from the ‘70s – they also won in ’74 – are often overlooked. They shouldn’t be.

Advertisement:

They were an extraordinary team, a worthy champion. And they had their own legendary accomplishment specific only to them: They won what is still considered the greatest game of all-time, defeating the Phoenix Suns in triple overtime in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals, 128-126.

What follows is a brief history of that special game, as recalled by several Celtics from that time and team who were in Boston this week while the franchise paid proper homage to those former and forever champs — ’66 and ’86, and oh yes,  ’76 too.

* * *

TOMMY HEINSOHN, Celtics coach, 1969-78: What I remember best about them is the fierceness of the players. We were really determined. We won in ’74 [over the Bucks and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Finals], but lost to Washington the next year. We desperately wanted to get back to championship. Desperately.

Advertisement:

The Celtics’ starting lineup featured three future Hall of Famers: relentless forward John Havlicek, hustling center Dave Cowens and elegant guard Jo Jo White. Forward Paul Silas was the always willing enforcer, while Charlie Scott offered an aggressive two-way edge in the backcourt.

Scott had been traded to the Celtics from the Suns in May 1975 for guard Paul Westphal. Westphal developed into a perennial All-Star in Phoenix, but the veteran Scott was considered a missing piece in Boston, teaming with White in the backcourt.

HEINSOHN: Charlie was a gunner like me. But he played much better defense than I did. That’s why we got him.

Advertisement:

CHARLIE SCOTT, Celtics guard, 1975-78: For me, the best thing about it was that I was just traded from Phoenix. I got to play the team that just traded me for the championship. Not many people can say that.

That this group of Celtics reached the NBA Finals was no surprise. They lead the Eastern Conference with 54 victories in the regular season, then defeated the Buffalo Braves and Cleveland Cavaliers in a pair of six-game series to reach the championship round.

The Suns’ presence was unexpected. They finished in third place in the Pacific Division with a 42-40 record, trailing the Golden State Warriors, who went 59-23 for the best record in the league, and the Seattle SuperSonics (43-39). But Phoenix upset the Sonics in six games in the conference semifinals, then bounced the defending champion Warriors in seven games to reach the NBA Finals.

Advertisement:

DAVE COWENS, Celtics center, 1970-80: I was just glad we didn’t have to play Golden State. They kicked our ass all the time.

The Warriors beat the Celtics twice in three regular-season meetings, including a 32-point rout in December.

SCOTT: Maybe Dave was scared of Golden State, but I really wanted to play Golden State because I thought we were the two best teams. We had beaten Phoenix four straight times.

In the Finals, the Celtics won the first two games at Boston Garden, but the Suns held serve with victories in Games 3 and 4 on their home court. The Celtics, known for their physical defensive play, were whistled for 34 fouls in both Game 3 and 4, which, not surprisingly, remains a point of contention to their coach.

Advertisement:

HEINSOHN: The fifth game was even more agonizing. [Longtime official] Richie Powers was my favorite referee. I know, vintage Tommy Heinsohn referee stuff. I remember we beat Phoenix in the first two games in Boston. We got to Phoenix [for Game 3] and Phoenix newspaper went off about how we manhandled them.

The first game out in Phoenix, they called a record number of fouls against us. And I find out that the rules were changed on handchecking without even telling us. I get a little upset about this. We ended up losing two games out there and then we won the fifth game.

Advertisement:

SCOTT: I fouled out of the first five damn games. I’m the only guy in history to foul out of the first five games of the Finals.

Cowens is asked whether Game 5 was the best basketball game he ever played in.

COWENS: [Deadpan.] No. Because I fouled out.

There were few indications early in the game that it would take the shape of a classic. The Celtics built a 32-12 lead after nine minutes en route to a 38-point first quarter. But the Suns, led by ex-Celtic Westphal (he would finish with 25 points), cut the margin to 15 at halftime. In the second half, they put the Celtics on lockdown, limiting them to 34 total points in the third and fourth quarters.

Advertisement:

The score was tied at 95 at the end of regulation and 101 apiece after the first overtime. There nearly wasn’t a second overtime because of a gaffe by the usually savvy Silas, who tried to call a timeout with the clock winding down.

The problem? The Celtics had no timeouts remaining.

It should have resulted in a technical foul and a free-throw for the Suns. The official – that ol’ Heinsohn favorite Richie Powers — ignored Silas. Years later, Powers acknowledged he didn’t want to see a Finals game decided on a technicality. The Suns raged, but the game headed to a second OT.

Advertisement:

The Celtics appeared to have the game in hand as the second OT played out, holding a 3-point lead with 15 seconds remaining. But the Suns’ Dick Van Arsdale swished a jumper to cut it to 1, and then the relentless Westphal came up with a steal. He passed to Van Arsdale, who redirected the pass to Curtis Perry. He missed a jumper but beat Havlicek to the rebound and scored on the follow-up to give the Suns an improbable 110-109 lead. Four seconds remained.

JOHN HAVLICEK, Celtics forward, 1962-78: [That’s when] I made the shot that we sort of thought won the game. I was the third option because I had been injured in the first series. I had a torn plantar fascia. We were running a play called Ohio. Jo Jo was the first option. Dave was the second option.

Advertisement:

COWENS: No, that’s not true. [Laughs]

SILAS: When we needed something, [Havlicek] would always make a shot. And Jo Jo was a great shooter, too.

HAVLICEK: Don Nelson is taking the ball out and has five seconds to put the ball in play and he’s having trouble getting it in bounds. So he’s at about one-thousand-four [on the referee’s five-second count] and I sprint toward the ball. He was able to get it in and it was a decent pass. I thought the only thing I can do is take it to the hoop and hope I get fouled so I can get to the line. As I turned to drive toward the hoop, I saw [Suns players] Dick Van Arsdale and, I think, Ricky Sobers. They were sort of linking together in a defensive stance and I said, ‘I’m going to split ‘em, and if I split ‘em, I’m going to keep my elbows up and hope they foul me.’ I jumped up in the air hoping to split ‘em … and they both backed off. Because they were told not to foul. So now I’m hung out to dry. But I took a lesson from [Celtics legend] Sam Jones. If it’s a 45-degree angle, you bank the basketball.

Advertisement:

Havlicek banked the basketball, all right. The shot dropped, and the Celtics ran off the court rejoicing, believing they had a 111-110 win and a 3-2 lead in the series. But it wasn’t over.

HAVLICEK: So we thought we won and I’m in the locker room, partially undressed, when they tell us that we’ve got one second left to play.

Powers decided correctly that time should have remained on the clock after Havlicek’s make. As chaos reigned – Celtics fans had rushed the court, and the scorer’s table had been toppled – one second was added to the clock. When the decision was an announced, the resuming of play was delayed when Powers was attacked by a Celtics fan and they traded punches.

Advertisement:

While order was being restored, the Suns’ Westphal formulated a plan. He told coach John MacLeod that the Suns should call a timeout even though they didn’t have one. That would earn a technical foul and allow the Celtics to shoot a free throw. But it also meant the Suns would get the ball at halfcourt with a better chance of getting off a shot. MacLeod signed off. White made the free throw, putting the Celtics up 2.

SILAS: That was the second time we scored and didn’t leave them a lot of time to do it. And I said, ‘Tom [Heinsohn], we’ve got a foul to give.’ And they only had one second to shoot the ball. And he said, ‘Ah, no no no no, they’ve only got one second.’ And they gave the ball to’– I can’t remember that dude’s name.

Advertisement:

He is reminded the player’s name is Gar Heard.

SILAS: Yeah! Gar Heard! [Expletive.] And he shot the ball and ‘bam.’ He nailed it. And I’m walking off the court and Tommy is sitting there, and I’m not going to say what I said. But I just told him, ‘Man, we should have fouled, we should have fouled.’ But we went on to win the ballgame. We had a rookie we put in. He made almost every shot.

The player was Glenn McDonald. He was not a rookie, but a second-year swingman who had been the No. 17 overall pick in ’74. But Silas’s mistake is an easy one to make. McDonald was scarcely used, playing just 395 minutes as a rookie and 1,019 in 1975-76.

Advertisement:

GLENN McDONALD, Celtics forward, 1974-76: I saw Paul fouling out of the game and I was expecting [backup forward Steve] Kuberski to go in and play power forward. But Tommy goes, ‘Mac!’ And I just jump up, because maybe he’s making a mistake and I’m running in, I want to get in there before he realizes it. But all he said was, ‘Run ‘em.’ Because I had been resting for a while.

Heinsohn’s hunch to go with the rested player paid off. McDonald delivered the performance of his brief career, scoring six points in 63 seconds. With the score tied at 118-118, he drove for a layup. Then he hit an improbable baseline turnaround to give the Celtics a four-point lead. That’s the one everyone remembers.

Advertisement:

McDONALD: I hit a big-time shot. And the next day Red [Auerbach] told me, ‘Why in the hell would you take that shot?’ I have to give credit to Havlicek. He used to tell me how to come off the baseline, turn, and catch and shoot. And I thought this was the best time to use it. But it was amazing. When I got home that night, I laid in bed and thought, ‘What the hell did I just do?’

McDonald scored his final points at the free-throw line, icing the 128-126 victory in the final seconds of the third overtime. His fresh legs had paid off when his teammates who had logged the most minutes had either fouled out or were exhausted.

Advertisement:

HEINSOHN: We were a very, very hard-running team. It took a lot of endurance from these guys. In the triple overtime game, Jo Jo played the most minutes.

White finished with a game-high 33 points in 60 minutes. He was so worn out that when McDonald shot his crucial free-throws, White sat down on the floor in the backcourt.

HEINSOHN: When it was over, Jo Jo laid down on the floor and couldn’t get up again. He gave it everything he had.

It wasn’t just the players who felt the effects of the marathon victory

HEINSOHN: I went into the locker room, one of the press guys asked me a question, I started answering, and I fainted. I was dehydrated.

Advertisement:

Even the Celtics were exhausted. Two days later, they would be exhilarated. Behind Charlie Scott’s 25 points, the Celtics defeated the Suns in Game 6, 87-80, to claim their 13th championship. White was named Finals MVP. It would be the Celtics’ final championship until the Bird era.

HEINSOHN: We knew the first team that could bend over and tie their sneakers for the sixth game was going to win. And we did. Good thing. If there had been a seventh game, we might have had to play with our sneakers untied.

Memorable images from the old Boston Garden

[bdc-gallery id=”108044″]

Jump To Comments

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com