On June 4, 1976, in Game Five of the NBA Finals, the Boston Celtics defeat the Phoenix Suns 128–126 in three overtimes. The game is considered by many to be the greatest in the history of the NBA Finals.
The Celtics, then the most successful team in the NBA’s short history, met the upstart Phoenix Suns, champions of the Western Conference, in the Boston Garden. With the series tied at two games apiece, both teams showed up to play. After an intense game that featured numerous lead changes, Suns guard Paul Westphal, formerly of the Celtics, made a three-point play at the end of regulation to tie the game and push it into overtime. The teams played to a standstill in the first overtime, forcing a second extra session.
As the second overtime ended, it appeared that Celtics forward John Havlicek’s leaning shot went in with no time on the clock, giving Boston a 111-110 win. Boston Garden immediately erupted into wild celebration, which turned to shock and dismay when officials put one second back on the clock. Hundreds of fans had already rushed the court, so referees had to clear the floor before the game could go on. Referee Richie Powers was attacked by at least one fan in the melee.
Once order was restored, the Suns called a timeout they did not have, which gave the Celtics one technical foul shot but also gave the Suns the ball at half-court, half a court closer to a tying basket. After the game, Suns Coach John McLeod told The New York Times, “Credit that move to Paul Westphal. He thought of it while we were trying to map out a play…with all those fans surrounding him, taunting our players and causing more fights. How could a coach coach? It was the most dangerous situation I’ve ever been in.”
Boston’s Jo Jo White, later named Most Valuable Player of the finals, made the free throw and the Suns’ Curtis Perry in-bounded the ball to teammate Gar Heard, who hit a turnaround jumper from the top of the key to force a third overtime. The Celtics’ head coach, Tommy Heinsohn, had to leave the game due to exhaustion and dehydration. His team, under the direction of assistant John Killelea and General Manager Red Auerbach, prevailed in the third overtime behind the inspiring play of Jo Jo White, despite several play stoppages caused by the relentless heckling of Phoenix players by Celtics fans.
With the victory, the series went back to Phoenix for Game 6. Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo said his team would not play a Game 7 in Boston unless security was improved. As it turned out, though, Game 7 wasn’t necessary: The Celtics beat the Suns in Game 6 in Phoenix, 87-80, to win their 13th NBA Championship.