The 40th anniversary of the greatest game ever played (Part 2)

Guest post by Abacus Reveals
June 4, 1976, Celtics-Suns Finals Game 5: Triple Excitement for the Bicentennial (Part 2: The play-by-play)

Yesterday’s Part 1 set the stage for the epic encounter that remains, even now on its 40th birthday, the lengthiest NBA Finals game ever.

Coach Heinsohn’s boys had found themselves in this very spot – series tied at two, playing Game 5 at home – twice before during this playoff run.

Had it been a boxing match, there likely would have been an early stoppage when the Celtics put their guests in a deep hole early in the second quarter.

Fortunately, for posterity, what was “booked” was a formulaic pro wrestling tag-team classic, replete with swerves, ref bumps and several false finishes.

Boston’s opening flurry was merely the “Babyface in Peril” stage, when the heinous heels isolate one opponent and unload on him. The most heinous was Havlicek with 13 first quarter points fueling the beat-down that peaked at 22 points and still stood at 61-45 at the intermission.

The “Young Lions” finally executed the “hot tag to the fresh man” as the third quarter commenced, exploding on their foes for a 23-7 run that tied the game at 68. The wily veterans held fast and took a five-point edge into the “final” stanza.

The Suns took their first lead of the game on a Curtis Perry free throw with 23 seconds remaining. Havlicek had two chances to put it away in regulation, but misfired on a second free throw and subsequent jumper.

The pattern of the game as a whole was replicated in each extra session – Boston eases ahead, Phoenix scrambles back. The first OT ended in controversy (and an omen of what was soon to happen). Silas grabbed a defensive rebound with three ticks left on the clock and appeared to signal for a time-out. Referee Richie Powers ignored this request, allowed time to expire, and became Public Enemy No. 1 in Arizona.

You see, Boston was fresh out of TO’s and thus subject to a technical foul.

(I did mention swerves and false finishes, didn’t I? The ref bump is up next!)

Coach Heinsohn’s crew again seemed to have things in hand, up 109-106 in the closing minute of OT No.2 … but then, in the blink of an eye, a Larry Bird highlight preview took place.

After converting a lay-up to cut the lead to one, Westphal picked Hondo’s pocket in the very spot where Bird would foil the Pistons 11 years later.

Then, in response to Perry’s follow-up of his own miss which gave Phoenix just its third lead of the night, the Captain responded with a 15’ lead-taking leaner off the glass – just where and just how Larry would do in Dr. J.’s Sixers a mere five years down the road.

Havlicek’s apparent game-winner set off a celebratory riot, fans charging the court as the Boston players danced down the aisle to the locker room. Despite the tumult – which included one screwball attacking Powers – Phoenix adamantly demanded their one second of opportunity.

Order was restored, the Suns’ protest upheld, Boston retrieved and the game reset – Phoenix possession under their own goal down by one, no TO’s.

Duke’s Coach K mastered this little dilemma in the NCAA tourney several years later, but that required a Christian Grant (which might be a distant cousin of those “indulgences” they used to sell way back in the day).

Westy has always gotten the credit for the bit of chicanery that forged OT No. 3 that night … maybe the inspiration came from Powers’s prior non-call. At the cost of a technical foul (converted by Jo Jo), the Suns’ excessive TO purchased them 47 feet of court length that allowed Perry to spot Garfield Heard for the game-extending 18-footer over Don Nelson.

(The Underdogs kicked out of yet another pinning predicament!)

Gar Heard was the perfect guy for that moment. His shot had a naturally high arc, and that one seemed to ascend halfway to the scoreboard – truly one of those moments that seem to happen in slo-motion, even in real time.

Troops were beginning to dwindle as the game closed in on the 60-minute mark. In all, five players would foul out, three Boston starters among them.

In the third extra period, the C’s decided to test the sufficiency of a six-point margin – which was exactly the production, including two clutch FT’s at the 0:36 mark, of one, Glenn McDonald. His Fifteen Minutes of Fame.

A final frantic Westphal-fueled Phoenix flurry came up one hoop shy, as the series MVP White dribbled out the clock.

Isn’t it odd that the Suns took the last shot in regulation and in each of the OT’s, converted two, yet still came up short?

The spunky Suns finally cracked for good two days later in the fourth quarter of Game 6, going more than eight minutes without a field goal. Fitting that the final game in green for two illustrious Celtics – Nelson and Silas – be a banner-clincher.