The Phoenix Suns entered the NBA in the 1968–69 season. Prior to 1976, they only made the playoffs once, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 1970 NBA Playoffs. Before that the Suns lost a coin flip to the Milwaukee Bucks to determine the fate of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's new team prior to the 1969 NBA draft. Phoenix ultimately selected Neal Walk, who became a bust. The Suns redeemed themselves in the 1975 NBA draft by selecting Alvan Adams fourth overall.
With Adams fortifying the center position, and with new addition Paul Westphal and Dick Van Arsdale providing the scoring punch, the Suns reached the playoffs for only the second time, finishing with 42 wins. The Suns defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in six games of the conference semifinals, before achieving a major upset in dethroning the previous year's champions the Golden State Warriors in seven games. The Suns made it to their first NBA Finals.
The Boston Celtics were seeking to make up for the lost opportunity they squandered in the 1975 NBA Playoffs. That year, they finished with 60 wins, but lost to the Washington Bullets in the conference finals. They kept the core of the team that won the 1974 NBA Finals, but made some tweaks, such as the trade of Westphal to Phoenix for Charlie Scott. The Celtics won 54 games in the 1975–76 season, then defeated the Buffalo Braves and the "Miracle of Richfield" Cleveland Cavaliers in six games each to reach their 14th NBA Finals. Boston was seeking its 13th NBA title.
Boston swept the four-game regular season series.
Boston Celtics defeated Phoenix Suns, 4 games to 2
Boston turned back the Suns in game one behind a balanced attack. John Havlicek did not start for the Celtics due to a painful heel injury. However, Boston coach Tom Heinsohn rushed Havlicek into the game with 7:24 left in the first quarter as Phoenix took an early 10-7 lead and the Ohio State product never came back out of the game. Dave Cowens recorded a triple-double with 25 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists while Jo Jo White shot only 1-4 from the field in the first half before making 8-of-11 shots in the second half to keep Phoenix at bay. Phoenix trailed by two at the end of the first quarter as they failed to take advantage of 11 first quarter Celtic turnovers. Kevin Stacom scored five straight points (his only points) to put Boston up for good 22-20. Charlie Scott fouled out when he picked up his fifth and sixth fouls in an 11-second span.
Phoenix lost their twelfth game in a row at Boston Garden as Boston put the game away with a 20-2 run at the start of the third quarter that gave them a 72-43 lead. The run was started by steals from Jo Jo White and Charlie Scott. Scott made just one-of-nine shots from the field in the first half but came alive with 12 points in the third quarter. Boston again started the game slowly without John Havlicek in the starting line-up, not making a field goal in the first three minutes of the game and again prompting Tommy Heinsohn to rush Havlicek into the game again.
Phoenix held Boston scoreless for nearly five minutes in the second period as they went to a 16-point lead. Then, the Suns' Ricky Sobers and Boston's Kevin Stacom got into a fistfight, and both were ejected. Sobers was having a good game at that point, and Phoenix coach John MacLeod would later accuse the Celtics of having Stacom bait Sobers into the fight in order to get him out of the game.
The Suns extended the lead to 23 in the third, but Boston began to charge back and cut the lead to two with three minutes left. At that point, Suns rookie center Alvan Adams scored twice, passed off to Paul Westphal for another, and then tipped in a Westphal miss moments later.
That was enough to get Phoenix a 105-98 win. Adams finished with 33 points and 14 rebounds. Dave Cowens and Charlie Scott both fouled out for the Celtics, and the Celtics also were whistled for two technicals.
In the first-ever NBA game played in June, referees Don Murphy and Manny Sokol whistled 21 fouls in the first 10 minutes. Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn claimed later that the affair was pure "high school." John Havlicek and Cowens put the blame on their team for 'committing stupid fouls.'
The game was close to the end, when Ricky Sobers hit a bank shot to put the Suns up by four with 90 seconds left. The Celtics cut it to two and had a chance to tie it, but lost 109-107 when Jo Jo White missed a jump shot late.
Game 5 was a triple-overtime contest that is sometimes referred to as "the greatest game ever played" in NBA history. With the series tied 2-2, Boston took a huge lead at Boston Garden but could not hold it. The game was enhanced by several controversies.
Two controversies involved each team's use of timeouts:
(a) With the score tied at 95-95, Boston's Paul Silas attempted to call a timeout near the end of regulation with the Celtics out of timeouts. Referee Richie Powers appeared to have seen Silas signal the timeout, but did not grant it. If he had, the Celtics would have been socked with a technical foul, and the Suns would have been awarded a free throw that might have decided the outcome.
(b) The Suns' Paul Westphal also called a timeout with his team out of them, as further explained below.
Another set of controversies involved the clock;
(a) Shortly after hitting the game-tying free-throw with 22 seconds left in regulation, John Havlicek missed the second and rebounded his own miss. He then took a pass from Jo Jo White, dribbled to the right and uncharacteristically attempted a jump shot with eight seconds left (rather than waiting until the final seconds). Westphal rebounded the ball for Phoenix with five seconds left and signaled for a timeout which the referee granted, but the clock was not stopped until three seconds were left.
(b) With three seconds left in the first overtime and the score 101-101, John Havlicek took an inbounds pass and dribbled to the right baseline before attempting a game-winning shot. The clock appeared not to start until Havlicek stopped dribbling and ball-faked before he released the shot.
(c) Havlicek hit what appeared to be the game-winning shot at the end of the second overtime, but his shot went through the basket with two seconds left and the clock should have been stopped, as discussed below.
The most notable portion of the game was the final 20 seconds of the second overtime. Boston led at that point 109-106 (with the three-point basket not yet in existence). Phoenix had possession of the ball after taking its last timeout of the OT. In an amazing and frantic sequence, the following transpired:
(a) The Suns' Dick Van Arsdale hit a short jumper from the corner, cutting the gap to 109-108,
(b) the Celtics inbounded the ball to John Havlicek, but the Suns' Paul Westphal came from seemingly out of nowhere to knock the ball out of Havlicek's hands. As his momentum was carrying him out of bounds, Westphal saved the ball to Van Arsdale, who passed it to Curtis Perry. Perry took an 18-footer from the left wing and missed.
(c) Havlicek went after the rebound on the Perry miss, but couldn't get a grip on it and ended up tapping the ball back to Perry on the left baseline.
(d) Perry then let fly from 15 feet (4.6 m) and made the shot to put the Suns ahead.
Phoenix suddenly led, 110-109, with just six seconds left, and the team looked poised to win their third straight game and grab a 3-to-2 edge in the series. John Havlicek (already of "Havlicek Stole the Ball" fame) responded with a drive and a leaning one-hander in traffic that put Boston in front 111-110 as the horn sounded. The fans then poured onto the court to celebrate Boston's apparent victory. The Celtics returned to their locker room. As CBS analyst Rick Barry passionately and correctly pointed out, the ball went through the hoop with two seconds left and the clock should have been stopped. The officials apparently agreed with Barry and ordered the Celtics back onto the floor. The game was not over.
During the ensuing pandemonium, a fan attacked referee Richie Powers and other fans turned over one of the scorer's tables. After clearing the court (the fan who attacked Powers was arrested) and getting the Celtics back on the floor, the officials put one second back on the clock. Still, Phoenix's chances seemed slim, as they had the ball under their own basket with a second left. Then Paul Westphal of the Suns signaled for a time out that the Suns did not have. Although this resulted in a technical foul being called on Westphal, the play was critical for Phoenix, because the rules at the time gave Phoenix the same advantage (save for the technical foul shot) that they would have had with timeouts remaining to use; namely, possession of the ball at half court. Boston's Jo Jo White made the technical free throw, increasing Boston's lead to 112–110.
During the timeout, fans were still on the Boston Garden floor, even disturbing the Suns' huddle by their bench as coach John MacLeod was drawing up a play for a possible tying basket. The Suns' players repeatedly had to shove the fans out of the way, and Phoenix general manager Jerry Colangelo even threatened to not bring his team back to the Boston Garden for Game 7 if security couldn't maintain control. When play resumed, Phoenix's Gar Heard took the inbounds pass from Perry and made a buzzer-beating shot (a turn-around jumper at the top of the key) for the Suns that tied the score yet again, 112–112.
Boston eventually took a six-point lead, 128–122, late in the third overtime. Glenn McDonald, a little-used Celtic reserve player, scored six in this overtime. Westphal scored the next four points for Phoenix, cutting the gap to 128–126, but could not get the ball again (with Westphal nearly stealing a pass near half court as the third overtime wound down).
Celtics who fouled out (were disqualified due to six personal fouls) were Charlie Scott in the last minute of regulation, Dave Cowens with one minute left in the 2nd overtime, and Paul Silas in the 3rd overtime. Alvan Adams and Dennis Awtrey both fouled out for the Suns. Silas picked up his fifth foul late in the fourth quarter, but played the entire remainder, including all three overtime periods before fouling out late in the third.
The Suns had the lead in the game on only four occasions (twice in the second overtime) and never by more than 2 points. They led 95-94 late in the fourth, and 106-105 and 110-109 in the 2nd overtime. They also led in the third overtime by 114–112.
McDonald scored eight points in the game, all in overtime.
Jo Jo White led all scorers with 33 points.
Pat Riley was a reserve on the Suns' bench, but never played in a game.
After the tough Game 5 loss, the Suns were more defiant than ever heading back home to Phoenix. "We know we're going to beat them." Gar Heard declared. "It's going to take seven now, but we know we're going to beat them. We showed we came to play."
The first half was a defensive struggle. Each team scored 20 points in the first quarter, then Boston scored 18 in the second while holding the Suns to 13. Keith Erickson, a key Suns' reserve, had attempted to play at the start of the second period, but reinjured his sprained ankle and never returned. After falling behind by 11, Phoenix caught up again in the third and took a 67–66 lead on a Ricky Sobers free throw with 7:25 left in the game.
But the Celtic heroes of old (Dave Cowens, John Havlicek) and new (Charlie Scott) took control from there. Havlicek hit two free throws; then Cowens stole the ball, drove, scored, drew the foul and made the foul shot for a three-point play. Cowens then scored two baskets and Havlicek another to put it away. Scott had three steals during the run and finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds, ending a series-long 11-for-44 shooting slump.
During the run, Phoenix's only response was four free throws. The Celtics rode their surge to an 87–80 win and their 13th championship.
Jo Jo White scored 15 points, giving him 130 points in six games, and was named the series MVP. John Havlicek celebrated his eighth NBA title as a Celtic.
The 1975–76 Finals had three straight off days between Sunday afternoon opener and Thursday night second game due to CBS-TV's concern with low ratings for professional basketball. The 1975–76 network television season (as well as May sweeps) ended after Wednesday, May 26 (with weekend afternoon games not factored into the prime-time ratings). Accordingly, CBS-TV allowed Game One to be played on Sunday afternoon, since the ratings would not count, but would not permit Game Two to be played live in prime time unless the NBA waited until Thursday evening.
Game 3 started on Sunday, May 30 at 10:30 a.m. MST in order for CBS to televise the final round of the PGA Tour Memorial Tournament following the game. The move angered numerous clergy in the Phoenix area, who saw drastically reduced attendance at Sunday services. The game also happened to be on the same day as the Indianapolis 500, but live flag-to-flag coverage of the event by ABC Sports was still ten years away.
CBS play-by-play announcer Brent Musburger, in a Fall 2009 interview with ESPN, said that he and color announcer Rick Barry were rooting for Phoenix to win Games 3, 4 and 6, although Barry's Golden State Warriors were eliminated by the Suns in the Western Conference Finals. Musburger said that this was because he and Barry were paid by the game. Since the Series was 2-0 Boston after the first two games, Musburger and Barry wanted the Suns to win the next two games to tie the series (likewise with Game six). Typically, Boston fans, unaware of Musburger's and Barry's motivations, were upset with the announcing crew because of their perceived favoritism.
The Celtics would undergo another rebuilding period for the next three years, but not without some controversy. In 1978, then-Celtics owner Irv Levin sold the team to future Kentucky governor John Y. Brown. Brown clashed with Celtics general manager Red Auerbach on control of the franchise, and later sold the team to Harry Mangurian in 1979, after Auerbach considered taking a front office job with the New York Knicks. On court, the Celtics showed their age, losing in the second round to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1977, then enduring two straight losing seasons. John Havlicek retired after the 1977–78 season, and in the 1978 NBA draft the Celtics selected Larry Bird under the existing junior-eligible rule, and while Bird had planned and did play at Indiana State during the 1978–79 season, he did sign with the Celtics before the 1979–80 season, in which the team won 61 games, a then-record 32-game turnaround from the previous season. One year later (the 1980–81 season), the Celtics won their 14th NBA championship by defeating the Houston Rockets, 4 games to 2.
John MacLeod's coaching tenure in Phoenix would last another 11 years, but Phoenix would not reach the Finals again until 1993, in which Paul Westphal was the head coach (MacLeod came within one game of reaching the 1988 Finals while he was coaching the Dallas Mavericks.) However, during that 16-year period, the Suns would make the playoffs twelve times, advancing to the conference finals four times. The team hit rock bottom in 1987 when Heard and other members of the Suns were caught in a drug scandal, and promising reserve Nick Vanos died in a plane crash that same year.
Eight players in this series would go on to be NBA head coaches. Along with the aforementioned Westphal, they were: Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Dave Cowens, Paul Silas, Gar Heard, Dick Van Arsdale, and John Wetzel.