The series was tied at 2 wins apiece, with the Celtics taking the first 2 at home, but the resilient Suns winning both of their home games, the last one a 109-107 squeaker. Now the series was back in Beantown for the pivotal 5th game.
The 42-40 Suns had already exceeded expectations, even knocking out the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the Western conference finals. They were led by 25 year old guard Paul Westphal, latecomer power forward Gar Heard who was acquired in the second half of the season from the Buffalo Braves, and rookie of the year center, the “Oklahoma Kid” Alvan Adams.
The Celtics, though not as seemingly invincible as in their Bill Russell-led heyday of the late 1950s and 60s, were still thriving, having won the championship two years previously, beating Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Milwaukee Bucks in 7 games. They were seeking their 13th championship in 20 seasons. 35 year old John ‘Hondo’ Havlicek was the last vestige of the Green’s past glory, but he was buoyed by a great supporting cast, including point guard Jo Jo White, undersized but effective center Dave Cowens, veteran power forward Paul Silas, shooting guard Charlie Scott, and small forward Don Nelson.
The game looked like it could be a blowout, as the Celts led 36-18 after the first quarter, and still held onto a 16 point lead heading into half-time, but the plucky Phoenix squad buckled down on defense and got to within 5 points at the end of the third quarter. With the score tied at 94-94 and 22 seconds remaining in the 4th, both Curtis Perry of the Suns and then Havlicek missed 1 of their 2 free throws. Havlicek got a second chance to seal the deal, getting the ball with 8 seconds left but missing on a mid-range jumper. The game went to overtime, tied 95-95.
The defense was air-tight for both teams in the first OT, as both teams only managed to score 6 points apiece. The tension ran high, but fans in the Boston Garden were still in store for quite a bit more drama. Havlicek would once again miss on an attempted game-winner as the clock expired, and the game went to a second overtime, tied 101-101.
With the players becoming visibly fatigued, the teams went back and forth, dropping some field goals but missing others. Both teams’ defenses were stifling. A big blow came to Boston with one minute left, as Dave Cowens fouled out on a charging call, which nullified his basket that could have been a 3 point play at the free throw line if the call had gone his way. The Suns would eventually take a 110-109 lead with 5 seconds to go, making two consecutive quick field goals, the second after a steal on the inbound by Paul Westphal and a slick offensive rebound by Perry, who regained his own miss, pump faked, and put it down the hole. The home crowd was stunned.
Havlicek would redeem his two misses as he received the inbound pass at half court, dribbled up and hit a leaner off the glass, as the clock expired to seemingly give the Celtics a 111-110 victory. The fans rushed the court, but the scoreboard operator was being a true homer, as the clock is supposed to stop once a basket is made. There were still two seconds left in the 2nd overtime. A hooligan fan dragged down referee Richie powers, as a riot started to ensue on the court.
Order was restored eventually, and the Suns would have 1 second to try to win the game. Phoenix made a strategic gambit, calling a timeout even though they had none left. The Celtics would get a free-throw shot on the technical foul, but this allowed the Suns to inbound at half-court, instead of under their own basket. Jo-Jo White made the shot to give Boston a 2 point edge. With security holding the fans back, Curtis Perry inbounded to Gar Heard, who received the pass, turned around, leapt, and sank a jumper from behind the free throw circle to tie the game and send it to a 3rd overtime!
The teams traded baskets to start the OT, but the Celtics were dealt another tough card, as Paul Silas would foul out trying to get a rebound on a Hondo jumper with 3:23 left to play. When one door closes, another opens, as Glen McDonald would enter the game in his place. The Celtics would get a bucket, sandwiched between two Phoenix field goals, but Garfield Heard would pick off an errant Halvicek pass, giving the Suns an opportunity to go up by two scores with 2:33 left to go. Jim Ard, playing center in place of Cowens, would do some shoplifting of his own, picking off a pass to keep Boston in it. Jo-Jo White then proceeded to tie it with a jumper, 2 of the 33 clutch points he scored in the game, and it was 118 all with 2 minutes left.
On the ensuing possession, Curtis Perry would lose his dribble and lock up with Ard to cause a jump ball, as the big man off the bench was earning his pay in a big way. Ard won the tipoff, and the Celts played volleyball as White tipped the ball to Don Nelson, who passed to Havlicek, who was bounding up court. He passed to Jo Jo, who faked a layup and flipped it to the newcomer McDonald, who made a short shot off the backboard to put the Celts up by 2. Phoenix Suns coach John Macleod attempted to call a time-out to settle his team and make a play, but for some reason the refs did not hear or see his pleas, and the Celtics would get a clutch rebound on a Gar Heard jumper. As the Celtics headed down court, Havlicek passed to McDonald, who was quickly becoming Mr Clutch, as he buried a fadeaway jumper to put Boston up by 4.
After a Suns timeout, Paul Westphal would bank a shot off the glass to shrink their deficit to 2 with 1:08 left to play, but the Celtics immediately came back, with Jo Jo White taking a Hondo pass and sinking another clutch basket to make their lead 4 again. The Suns would get down quickly, but McDonald came through again, getting a huge rebound on a Dick Van Arnsdale shot. The ball was knocked out of his hands out of bounds, but a foul was called on the play. Jo Jo White was playing the game of his life, but it was taking its toll, as he sank to his backside trying to get a breath, utterly exhausted.
Glenn McDonald made both of his free throws, as the Celtics now lead 126-120 with 36 seconds left. Phoenix would make a quick score, then the Celtics would add two free throws before Phoenix scored again to get their deficit down to 4. The Suns then recovered the ball after Mcdonald lost the ball heading to the basket, with Ricky Sobers lobbing an 88 foot hail mary pass to Westphal, who put up a layup with 12 seconds left to make it a two point contest.
The Green inbounded the ball, with Havlicek passing in to Jo-Jo White, who gave it back to Hondo. He then made a bounce pass to Don Nelson on his left. Nelson saw Jim Ard down court, and made a rainbow toss over the half court line that was nearly intercepted by Paul Westphal. Ard flipped it to McDonald, who then threw it to Jo-Jo, who dribbled away the remaining seconds to give Boston a scintillating 128-126 triple overtime victory. The Celtics would win game 6 back in Phoenix 86-80 to clinch the championship, with Jo Jo White deservedly winning Finals MVP, as he averaged 21.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 5.8 assists for each game in the series.
Game 5 is considered by many to be the greatest basketball game ever played, with both teams so evenly matched, and with so many reserves coming off the bench and delivering for their teams when the stars fouled out. Amazingly the 1970s was considered a down time for the Celts, as they ONLY won two championships during the decade, but a deep bench kept them in this game and was a key to their success from the beginning of the dynasty that ran from 1957-69, during which they won 11 of the 13 championships contested.
As it turns out, ‘76 was the last hurrah for the old guard. Long time head coach and former Celtic great Tommy Heinsohn was jettisoned in the ‘77-78 season, during which the Celtics had a terrible 32-50 record, and John Havlicek would retire at the end of that year, after 16 seasons of hall of fame worthy b-ball. For a supposed downturn in the dynasty before The Bird and Co. would fly high in the 1980s, it was quite a thrill to see a group of grizzled playoff experienced veterans squeak one out against the dynamic Cinderella Suns.