The NBA Finals brought us basketball fans many incredible performances. For example, Game 1 of this year’s Finals gave us one hell of a finish.
The Golden State Warriors rode past the Boston Celtics late in the third quarter with a 15-plus lead. Then the Celtics went on a tear; They beat the Warriors 40-16 in the fourth and won 120-108.
That was an amazing finish, but it’s not the best. Looking back at NBA Finals history, you could pick many moments like Jordan’s gamewinner sinking the Jazz or Magic’s game-winning baby hook shot to beat Birds Celtics.
The most incredible final does not exist in any of these games. This title pertains to the final of Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and the Phoenix Suns.
NBA Finals Game 5: Boston Celtics vs. Phoenix Suns
The Boston Celtics dominated the 1960s, led by the great Bill Russell. After Russell retired in 1969, the Celtics’ dominance seemed to be over.
Then the Celtics’ pride rose again when they won the 1974 NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks. In 1976, the Celtics found themselves in the Finals again, this time against the Phoenix Suns.
The Celtics were led by John Havlicek and the Suns by Paul Westphal. After the first four games the series was 2:2. This set up the all-important Game 5 in Boston.
The Celtics leapfrogged the Suns early in the game, taking a 36-18 lead after the first quarter. The longer the game went on, the closer the Suns got.
Then, with 22 seconds left, the Celtics fans bit their nails as the Suns took their first lead of the game, 95-94. Havlicek would then be fouled with 19 seconds left and would have a chance to put the Celtics ahead at the line.
This is where things start to get crazy. Havlicek made the first free throw to level the game, but he missed the second try. The miss somehow ended up in Havlicek’s hands again and now the Celtics had a chance to win the game.
Havlicek attempted a game-winning jump shot, but missed. The Suns grabbed the rebound and immediately called a timeout with five seconds left.
The problem for the Suns was the fact that the clock ran out an extra two seconds after the time-out and the umpires didn’t want to change it. So the Suns had three seconds left to win the game.
The ball was thrown in by Suns power forward Gar Heard but stolen by the Celtics and Game 5 went into overtime. Thing was, the game shouldn’t have ended, not yet.
Actually, the Suns should have shot a free throw with a chance of winning the game. Why? After the Celtics stole the ball, Celtics power forward Paul Silas tried to call a quick timeout and he did so before the clock ran out.
The referee, Richie Powers, appeared to have looked at Silas, but he didn’t heed the call. Why is that important? The Celtics ran out of time-outs, meaning Silas’ attempt to call a time-out would have resulted in a technical foul, which would have resulted in the Suns being awarded a free throw to win the game.
The time-out was not granted and Game 5 saw overtime. But as you will see, the drama of the game was far from over.
The next controversial moment in the game came when there were three seconds left at the end of overtime. The game was tied 101-101 and the Celtics had possession.
Havlicek took the inbound pass and dribbled to the right. The game clock only started after Havlicek stopped dribbling and pump faked his defender.
Luckily for the Suns, Havlicek missed the shot and the game went into a second overtime. The clock mishap was another odd situation at the end of this game.
The game wasn’t over yet, and the wild end was yet to come.
At the end of the second overtime, with 19 seconds left, the Celtics were leading 109-106.
The Suns had the ball and with 15 seconds remaining, Dick Van Arsdale pocketed a knight to cut the lead to 109-108. Westphal then stole the Celtics’ inbounds pass and threw the ball to Curtis Perry.
Perry missed the shot, but the Suns grabbed the rebound and the ball went back into Perry’s hands, and this time he pocketed the jumper. The Suns now led 110-109 with 5 seconds left in the game.
The Celtics wouldn’t be done yet. Havlicek took the inbound pass and drove towards the basket. Havlicek benched a jump shot to give the Celtics a 111-110 lead with seemingly two seconds remaining.
The clock issues earlier in the game returned. The ball went through the net with two seconds to go but the clock kept ticking and it timed out showing 00 on the scoreboard.
The Boston crowd roared with excitement. The fans stormed the pitch to celebrate the win. The Celtics players even ran back to their dressing rooms ready to celebrate the win.
The problem for the Celtics was that the umpires noticed the clock’s error and debated their next move. Here it goes to the top.
A fan attacked referee Richie Powers on the pitch. The police quickly rushed to the courthouse and stripped Powers of the fan.
Even after the fight was stopped by the police, the Celtics faithful were still on the field. The fans were slowly escorted off the pitch and the Celtics players returned from their dressing room.
Order was restored and the Suns had the ball. The umpires actually put one second on the clock instead of the correct two seconds remaining.
The Suns’ chances were slim, especially since they had to throw in the ball under the Celtics basket. This meant they had to go the full length of the pitch to score.
The Suns were out of timeouts, so they couldn’t get the ball to the halffield line. So the Suns made a clever tacit decision by taking a time-out they didn’t have, which the umpires this time called an appropriate technical foul.
Jo Jo White sunk the technical free throw that gave the Celtics a 112-110 lead with a second to go. A time-out they didn’t have allowed the Suns to get the ball halfway.
Now, as the Suns set up their final game, Celtics fans were still on the ground trying to get into the Suns’ scrum.
Despite these distractions, the Suns players were ready. Perry threw the ball into Gar Heard, who caught the ball, turned and fired a jumper that hit the buzzer and sank through the net. The game was tied 112-112 and there would be a third overtime!
The fans in Boston were stunned. They were just out of bounds and ready to charge back onto the pitch. However, they were denied this by a miracle shot from Gar Heard.
The Celtics regained their composure to take a 128-122 lead with 31 seconds left in the third overtime. Just when it looked like the game was over and the Celtics would easily win, the Suns charged back.
Paul Westphal would not let his team give up. He made two quick baskets that cut the lead to 128-126 in Boston’s favour.
Westphal then almost stole a pass as his fingers released the ball, but the Celtics recaptured the ball and successfully ran out the clock to win 128-126. The Celtics would wrap up the series in Game 6 with an 87-80 win, giving them their 13th franchise championship.
Game 5 has gone down in history as one of the longest NBA Finals games of all time. Former NBA legend Rick Barry, who served as announcer for the game, called it “the most exciting basketball game I’ve ever seen.”
Barry didn’t lie about it. Fans who were in attendance and watching on TV were indeed fortunate to have witnessed the greatest finals game in real time.