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1976 NBA Season – Greatest Game Ever

May 31, 2013


Gar Heard’s game-tying shot in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals *photo courtesy of Sports Then and Now

1976 was a bit of a tumultuous season that culminated with the greatest game ever.  On the day of the All-Star Game, the Oscar Robertson suit was settled out-of-court.  This officially did away with the reserve clause and would eventually allow players to sign with whatever team they wanted without their previous team getting compensation.  This also started the ‘right of first refusal’ which in today’s terms is the restricted free agent.  This was said by Brent Musburger who was interviewing NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien as being revolutionary with the times.  Also pretty weird to me was O’Brien complimenting the leader of the NBA Players Association Larry Fleisher, although that could just be good PR.

Settling this suit also gave the NBA a chance to merge with the ABA.  At the time of the All-Star Game it looked like the NBA wasn’t going to do that.  A lot of owners, including Red Auerbach, just wanted to wait for the league to go under.  But by the time of the NBA Finals, it looked like a merger would happen (and it eventually did).  The terms were harsh for the four teams that merged (Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, and San Antonio Spurs).  (bullet points courtesy of Wikipedia)

  • The new teams’ arrival was treated as an expansion, not a merger. The four remaining ABA teams had to pay a $3.2 million expansion fee to the NBA by September 15, 1976. The NBA also would not recognize ABA records.
  • The New York Nets were to pay an additional $4.8 million directly to their in-town rival, the New York Knicks, as compensation for “invading” the New York area.
  • The four ABA teams would receive no television money at all during their first three seasons in the NBA (1976–1979), and were to pay one seventh of their annual television revenues after that to the owners of the defunct Spirits of St. Louis in perpetuity.
  • The four ABA teams would receive no votes related to the distribution of gate receipts or the alignment of NBA divisions for two years.
  • The remaining players from the Kentucky Colonels and the Spirits of St. Louis would be made available to NBA teams through a dispersal draft, with superstars such as Artis Gilmore and Moses Malone going to teams other than the four ABA teams.

Also not mentioned was that the four teams couldn’t participate in the 1976 college draft.  But the Nets payment to the Knicks mentioned in the second bullet-point forced them to sell Julius Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers for the 1977 Season.

The 76ers in 1976 were one of the many improving teams.  They had just signed George McGinnis from the Indiana Pacers to go along with young stars Doug Collins, Steve Mix and veteran Fred Carter.  The 76ers would finish 2nd in the Atlantic Division and make the playoffs for the first time since 1971.  They would take on the Buffalo Braves in a best-of-3 mini-series as the NBA had expanded to 5 playoff teams in each conference in 1975.

The Atlantic Division winners and only one of two teams in the whole league to finish above 49 wins was the Boston Celtics.  The Celtics were aging as John Havlicek turned 36 that season and Don Nelson turned 36 as well and would retire after the season.  Paul Silas turned 32 and was in his last season with the Celtics after losing out on a contract dispute in the summer of 1976.  Silas’ departure would contribute to the Celtics demise over the next few seasons along with the wear and tear on Dave Cowens and Jo Jo White.  But they were together one last time in 1976 but without Don Chaney, who had gone to the ABA.  To make up for that, the Celtics traded backup guard Paul Westphal to Phoenix for Charlie Scott.

Westphal would eventually make an impact on a young Phoenix Suns team.  The Suns started 19-27 though as they had rookies Alvan Adams and John Shumate starting up front.  Two days before the All-Star Game, they traded Shumate to the Buffalo Braves for Garfield Heard, and that turned their season around as they finished 3rd in the West at 42-40 and made the Western Conference Finals.  1st in the West and the best record in the league was the World Champion Golden State Warriors.

The Warriors returned virtually the same team but had traded Butch Beard to the Cleveland Cavaliers for forward Dwight Davis four days after winning the championship.  Although Phil Smith stepped into his starting spot and became an All-Star, the chemistry didn’t turn out to be the same and this would eventually bite the Warriors.

The Warriors would survive the 36-46 Detroit Pistons in the Semifinals in 6 games.  The Pistons finished two games behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the Midwest Division crown.  In a quirky playoff format that reminds me of the 1971 and 1972 playoffs (when the NBA first went to four divisions), the Division-winning Bucks played in the mini-series against the Pistons and lost Game 3 at home.  The first three playoff seeds were the Warriors, the 43-39 Seattle Sonics and the Suns.  The 40-42 Los Angeles Lakers didn’t get in and neither did the 37-45 Portland Blazers, despite having a better record than the Pistons.  My theory is that they figured the Division Champion had to have home-court advantage in at least the first round (as a reward for being the Division champion).  So they couldn’t include the Lakers against the Bucks because the Lakers had a better record (although that would have been cool for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to go back to Milwaukee for a playoff game just a year after being traded to the Lakers).  And if the Lakers couldn’t be included, the Blazers in the same division with a worse record couldn’t be included either.  So they rewarded two Midwest Division teams.  If Stern were around then, the Lakers would have found their way into the playoffs somehow.

In the East, the Washington Bullets fell off after their 60-win 1975 season in which they were swept by the Warriors in the Finals.  Kevin Porter had been traded to the Detroit Pistons for Dave Bing.  As it turned out, the Bullets probably needed more of an assist man like Porter at the point instead of Bing, who was more of a scorer.  As it turned out, Porter missed the playoffs with an injury so I guess in that way it worked out for the Bullets.  But they finished third with a 48-34 record, 1 game behind the young Cleveland Cavaliers.  The Cavs were so talented that they had stars Austin Carr and Campy Russell coming off the bench for the 1976 playoffs.  Their solid backcourt was not as flashy as Carr and Russell but Jim Cleamons and Dick Snyder ended up being heroes in the 7-game battle with the Washington Bullets.  The Cavs had Bobby ‘Bingo’ Smith up front along with Jim Chones and Jim Brewer.  They also had traded for veteran Nate Thurmond early in the season.  Thurmond would provide veteran stability for this young team.

The Cavs would beat the Bullets 92-91 in Game 5 of the Semifinals at home on a Jim Cleamons tip-in.  This victory gave them a 3-2 lead. The Bullets won Game 6 in overtime but in Game 7 the Cavs pulled it out 87-85 on Dick Snyder’s driving layup.  This would be known in Cleveland and Ohio as ‘The Miracle of Richfield’ (shown in the video below).  The Cavs would lose Jim Chones to a broken leg though and this would cost them in the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Celtics.

Before we get to the Playoff games from 1976, we get to the All-Star Game in Philadelphia.

February 3, 1976 – NBA All-Star Game at Philadelphia: East 123, West 109

Mendy Rudolph had been forced to retire as a referee because of health concerns, so he replaced Oscar Robertson as the lead analyst with Brent Musburger.  And they called a dandy early on.

The early part of this ball game involved lots of ball movement; some great, some not so much but when the teams battled to a 22-all tie late in the first quarter, nobody had more than a two point lead.  Of the ten starters for this game (Havlicek, Hayes, McAdoo, Frazier, and Bing for the East – Barry, Dandridge, Abdul-Jabbar, Archibald, Winters for the West), only Bing and Winters didn’t score in that early period.  The Philadelphia fans got a rise as young Doug Collins came off the bench for two quick buckets.  The East finally took a four point lead at 26-22 as Philadelphia’s other representative George McGinnis drove baseline and finished with one of his patented one-handed shots.  Collins then hit two more free throws but committed a dumb foul with 1 second left in the quarter by reaching in and trying to steal the ball from Phil Smith a few steps in front of half court.  Smith split a pair and it was 28-23 East after a quarter.  Dandridge had led the West with 8 and Collins’ 6 led the East.

In the second quarter, Kansas City’s second-year man Scott Wedman (more famous for starring for the Boston Celtics a decade later) hit two quick jumpers to counter two field goals by current Celtics’ Jo Jo White and Dave Cowens.  A Norm Van Lier jumper cut the East’s lead to 33-29 and then Seattle’s Freddie Brown got a fast break layup and then a jumper to tie the game.  The East regained a 39-34 lead helped by two McAdoo jumpers.  But then an Andul-Jabbar long outlet pass to Archibald for a layup and a foul followed by a Barry tip-in tied the game again.  The West eventually took the lead when Archibald penetrated and threw a blind over-the-head pass to Winters for a layup.  The West then took a 50-45 lead when Barry was fouled on a fast break layup.  The foul was McAdoo’s 4th.  The West had a chance to increase their lead before intermission.  On another West break, Barry dished to Dandridge for a layup but Bobby missed it.  Dandridge followed it up but his field goal came after the buzzer so the West lead held at five.  McAdoo led the East with 12 while Barry paced the West with 11.

The third period started off strong for Kareem, who scored 7 quick points.  The East stayed within 57-51 thanks to two Dave Bing jumpers.  The East eventually tied it at 59 on a Jo Jo White banker.  The East went back and forth with the West for the next few minutes thanks to Bing, who hit 2 free throws and then another jumper on the break.  Then he dished to Havlicek for a layup and a foul and then to McGinnis on the break.  The East’s lead was cut to 68-67 on a Wedman jumper.  But then Cowens hit two free throws and then a jumper after Kareem was taken out of the game for a rest.  The West’s only backup big man capable of dealing with the likes of Cowens, Hayes, McAdoo and McGinnis was Suns’ rookie Alvan Adams.  So it was a critical key according to the announcers that Kareem play well and play for awhile.  A remedy for this problem could have been if Bob Lanier was named to this game as a backup but he only played in 64 games in the 1976 season, so who knows if he was hurt.  Anyways, Adams did about as well as he could contributing a follow-up basket but Bing’s fourth jumper in four attempts in the third put the East up 76-69.  The West though cut it to 83-80 after three on an Adams tip dunk.

Two Fred Brown field goals and then a Wilkes jumper gave the West a brief 86-85 lead.  But then the East got hot.  Bing, Randy Smith, McAdoo and Hayes helped the East take a 103-94 lead.  Then Bing hit two more driving layups as Musburger mentioned that he was his vote [for MVP].  Two Kareem buckets kept the West’s deficit under 11, but then a Hayes jumper and then a McAdoo jumper on a Collins feed gave the East a 111-98 lead.  Then on a scramble play, Archibald drove to the right of the lane, jumped up in the air with his back to the basket, then as he was spinning in the air to his right threw a blind one-handed overhead pass to Kareem for a bucket and a foul.  The crowd went crazy and Kareem showed more emotion in reacting than I’m sure the average 1976 fan was used to seeing.  But the West got no closer than eight for the rest of the game and got Bing got his final assist on a dish to Collins on the break.  Bing proved Musburger a profit by being named MVP with 16 points and 4 assists.  All the points and all but one of the assists were in the 2nd half.

West starters (teams) and point totals

Rick Barry (Golden State Warriors) 17 – Small Forward

Bob Dandridge (Milwaukee Bucks) 10 – Power Forward

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Los Angeles Lakers) 22 – Center

Nate Archibald (Kansas City Kings) 13 – Point Guard

Brian Winters (Milwaukee Bucks) 2 – Shooting Guard

West bench (teams) and point totals

Alvan Adams (Phoenix Suns) 4

Jamaal Wilkes (Golden State Warriors) 8

Curtis Rowe (Detroit Pistons) 1

Scott Wedman (Kansas City Kings) 8

Norm Van Lier (Chicago Bulls) 3

Fred Brown (Seattle Sonics) 14

Phil Smith (Golden State Warriors) 7

West Coach: Al Attles (Golden State Warriors)

East starters (teams) and point totals

John Havlicek (Boston Celtics) 9 – Small Forward

Elvin Hayes (Washington Bullets) 12 – Power Forward

Bob McAdoo (Buffalo Braves) 22 – Center

Walt Frazier (New York Knicks) 8 – Point Guard

Dave Bing (Washington Bullets) 16 – Shooting Guard

East bench (teams) and point totals

Dave Cowens (Boston Celtics) 16

George McGinnis (Philadelphia 76ers) 10

Rudy Tomjanovich (Houston Rockets) 2

John Drew (Atlanta Hawks) 2

Jo Jo White (Boston Celtics) 6

Doug Collins (Philadelphia 76ers) 12

Randy Smith (Buffalo Braves) 8

East Coach: Tom Heinsohn (Boston Celtics)


Dave Bing got the All-Star MVP award in his first season with the Bullets *photo courtesy of NBA History

April 18, 1976 – East Quarterfinals, Game 3: Buffalo Braves 124 @Philadelphia 76ers 123 (OT)

This was the second year of the best-of-three quarterfinals or 1st round (or mini-series).  Only the 4 and 5 seeds played a mini-series in ’75 and ’76.  The playoffs expanded to 6 teams per conference the next season, so the 3 seed played in the mini-series while the division champions waited for the winners.  As it was in 1976, the Semifinals between the 2 seed and the 3 seed had already started (so those series had quite a few days in between games as their schedule tried to match the 1 seeds’ matchup versus the mini-series winner).

In the East, Boston was waiting for the winner of this series while Cleveland had taken a 2-1 lead against Washington in the over Semi.  Buffalo had won a close Game 1 in Philly but were destroyed 131-106 in Game 2 at home.  Early in that game, big man John Shumate had taken an elbow to the head and had been knocked out.  Shumate had an MRI before Game 3 and it wasn’t determined until a few hours before the game that he would play.  Shumate had been the 4th pick in the 1974 NBA draft after starring at Notre Dame (most notibly ending the 88-game UCLA winning streak).  He had missed the enitre 1975 season with a blood clot.

Shumate had been acquired to give Buffalo more size and they would need it to battle George McGinnis, Steve Mix and Harvey Catchings of Philadelphia.  Shumate’s first basket in Game 3 would be on an offensive rebound to tie the game at 17.  Buffalo had grabbed a 7-2 lead and Philly had a 17-13 advantage.  The game stayed closer than that for the first period, which ended with a 32-all tie.  Randy Smth led the Braves with 9 while Doug Collins paced Philadelphia with 8.

Philadelphia grabbed an early advantage in the second quarter.  Joe Bryant (yep, Kobe’s father) got on Philadelphia’s third rebound of the same possession.  Then Lloyd Free (later to be known as World B.) hit a pull-up jumper from the top of the key.  Then Catchings blocked consecutive Buffalo shots which set off a Philly break as McGinnis fed Free for a layup.  Philadelphia led 64-55 at halftime and still had a 77-66 lead mid-way through the third.

Then Jim McMillian hit a jumper for his 23rd point and then Bob McAdoo hit his third shot of the period in three attempts.  After Collins made one-of-two free throws, Randy Smith hit an underhanded layup and Ken Charles hit a short jumper on the break and just like that it was a 4-point game.  Collins got the lead back to eight when on the break he left Randy Smith standing still with a change of direction behind-the-back dribble and then hit a reverse layup as the crowd went crazy.  But then Buffalo went on a 7-0 run as McAdoo scored on back-to-back possessions (one of those scores was a three-point play).  Fred Carter’s 5 points kept Philadelphia ahead in the third but McAdoo’s short jumper at 4 seconds cut the lead to 89-87 after three.

Shumate started the fourth quarter with Buffalo’s first 6 points.  But a Bryant free throw put the 76ers up 94-93.  Then McMillian hit a layup on a Don Adams assist (Adams was called by play-by-play man Don Criqui as the Mickey Lolich of the NBA.. I assume because he had a bit of a gut) and Shumate hit another jumper.  A Randy Smith three-point play put the Braves up 100-96.  Then after a Bryant basket on a McAdoo goaltending, McAdoo scored on a drive and then Shumate hit a double-pump shot in the lane after a spin.  He was fouled on the shot and the three-point play put Buffalo up 105-98.  Philadelphia was able to cut it to 107-103 before McGinnis fouled out.  Big George had finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds.  The 76ers brought in Free for a three guard lineup with Collins and Carter.  Those three were able to bring Philly back.  A McAdoo dunk on an offensive rebound put Buffalo up 109-105 with 1:10 left.  But after a Philly timeout, Collins penetrated and kicked to Lloyd Free who hit a customary World B. Free turnaround jumper off the glass at 1:04.  Buffalo ran down the shot clock but Ken Charles missed a short jumper.  Philadelphia got the rebound and pushed.  Collins hit a pull-up jumper with 41 seconds left to tie the game.

After a Buffalo timeout, Shumate made a strong inside move and scored but was called for an offensive foul at 28 seconds.  The 76ers ran the clock down as Carter dribbled waiting to make a move.  At 0:06, Carter hit a jumper from the top of the key and Philly was up 111-109.  After a Braves timeout, McAdoo came to the ball, got it, and drove to the bucket.  He missed a double-pump shot but as he got his own rebounded he was fouled by Philadelphia’s backup center Clyde Lee.  It may look to some as if McAdoo had gone over Lee’s back but the determination was that McAdoo had gotten to the ball first and then Lee ran into him as he was going for the ball.  With 1 second left, McAdoo faced an advanture at the line.  At the time in the NBA, the basket were supported by guy wires.  And a very dedicated Philly fan shoot the wire while McAdoo was shooting so the basket was moving back and forth.  You talk about fans waving everything in the background to try and distract and shooter, the basket shaking has to be the ultimate distraction (minus a pretty lady uhh.. showing off her body).  Despite this McAdoo made the two free throws to tie the game.  Free then airballed a long shot at the buzzer and we were on to overtime.

Jim McMillian fouled out with Buffalo ahead 113-111 after Shumate hit another jumper for his 21st point.  Doug Collins then tied the game hitting a jumper over McMillian’s replacement, Dick Gibbs for his 25th point.  But after Buffalo hit three free throws, Gibbs did get an assist to John Shumate to put the Braves up by 5.  Fred Carter hit 4 free throws to cut the Braves lead to 118-117 with under a minute to go.  Then Randy Smith hit a tough turnaround from the elbow.  After a Steve Mix tip-in, McAdoo hit two more clutch free throws at 17 seconds to all but cinch it (and this time the Philly fan was kicked out for shaking the basket).

This would be the last hurrah for the Buffalo Braves as they would lose to Boston in 6 games in the Semifinals.  They would not make the playoffs again until 1992, when they were the Los Angeles Clippers.  They would not win another playoff series until 2006.  Bob McAdoo was sold to New York the next season and grabbed a selfish reputation in New York, Boston, Detroit and New Jersey before being resurrected with the Lakers in the early 80’s as the main scorer off the bench.  Shumate and Smith’s careers would continue successfully but in relative anonymity (making one more playoff appearance each – but not for more than 3 games) until the early 80’s.  Smith would win the MVP at the 1978 All-Star Game.  Coach Jack Ramsay would leave for Portland after the season and he would see Philadelphia again the next season.

This would be Philadelphia’s last game until the 1987-88 season without Julius Erving on their roster.  Success would ensue as a result.

Buffalo starters (points scored)

Jim McMillian (25) – Small Forward

John Shumate (23) – Power Forward

Bob McAdoo (34) – Center

Ken Charles (8) – Point Guard

Randy Smith (27) – Shooting Guard

Buffalo bench (points scored)

Ernie DiGregorio (1)

Dick Gibbs (0)

Bob Weiss (6)

Don Adams (0)

Dale Schlueter (0)

Buffalo Coach: Jack Ramsay

Philadelphia starters (points scored)

Steve Mix (18) – Small Forward

George McGinnis (15) – Power Forward

Harvey Catchings (8) – Center

Fred Carter (32) – Point Guard

Doug Collins (25) – Shooting Guard

Philadelphia bench (points scored)

Lloyd Free (14)

Joe Bryant (9)

Clyde Lee (2)

Philadelphia Coach: Gene Shue


Randy Smith was a key for the Braves and one of the fastest guards in the league *photo courtesy of Buffalo Braves

May 9, 1976 – Western Conference Finals, Game 4: Golden State Warriors 129 @Phoenix Suns 133 (2ot)

The Phoenix Suns had surprisingly come back home after stealing Game 2 in Golden State and tying the series at 1.  They had won 15 straight at home which had contributed to their mid-season revival.  However, Jamaal Wilkes scored 22, Phil Smith 17, and rookie Gus Williams (who would later star on some great Seattle Supersonics teams) had 14 off the bench.  With this effort the Warriors won Game 3 99-91.

So on this Mother’s Day in Phoenix, the Warriors were expected to continue and take a 3-1 lead, win Game 5 back in Oakland and wait for the winner of Boston/Cleveland.  If they were going to get there, the young Suns would make it tough.  Phoenix started rookie of the year Alvan Adams (who was presented with this award at halftime and thanked David Thompson for going to the ABA) and rookie point guard Ricky Sobers.

Phoenix took a 26-21 lead as Rick Barry got 3 early fouls (and would sit out for the entire second quarter).  Jamaal Wilkes would score 10 first quarter points for the Warriors but it was Adams who made a jumper at the end of the first quarter for his 12th point and a 36-30 Phoenix lead.  The Suns bench sparked them in the second quarter (and would eventually save Phoenix’s life).  Dick Van Arsdale (the only original Sun remaining from 1968) and Dennis Awtrey hit jumpers.  The Suns were helped by a Dwight Davis technical foul.  Keith Erickson hit the free throw and then a jumper to give Phoenix a 47-36 lead.  The Warriors came back helped by reserve Derrek Dickey who started an 8-0 run with a jumper.  That run was aided by a Dennis Awtrey technical.  Golden State eventually cut it to one when a 3-on-1 fast break resulted in a Dickey three-point play.  Then Garfield Heard scored 4 of Phoenix next 6 points on their 6-0 run. Heard finished the first half with 16 points.  Golden State would cut it to 65-63 on a long Dickey jumper with 2 seconds left in the half.  Phoenix threw a long pass to Adams, who hit a jumper but it was ruled to be released after the buzzer.

Phoenix kept its slight advantage throughout the third as Dick Van Arsdale scored half of his 16 points in the period.  Wilkes led the Warriors with 22 points.  The Suns led 91-87 after the quarter but ran into a problem on their first possession of the fourth when star guard Paul Westphal committed his 5th foul.  Keith Erickson helped keep the Suns in the lead with three jumpers but Barry and Phil Smith were hitting jumpers as well.  The Warriors were also getting another contribution from rookie Williams.  Golden State grabbed the lead at 105-104 when Barry hit Wilkes with an under-handed pass for a layup.  Then Smith hit his 30th point on a jumper.  Dick Van Arsdale hit a pull-up jumper for his 18th point with under 2:00 on the clock.  Then at 1:13, Gar Heard missed two free throws which could have put Phoenix ahead but the Suns would take a 108-107 lead 15 seconds later when Erickson hit a jumper after a Westphal steal.

Barry hit a jumper at 45 seconds for a 109-108 Warriors lead.  Phoenix ran a play that got Van Arsdale open in the corner.  He was short but Gar Heard got the offensive rebound and made the putback but was ruled to be fouled before the shot.  So Heard this time made the two free throws at 32 seconds.  At the 15 second mark, Barry hit a turnaround fallaway over Heard from just inside the left elbow for his 20th point and a 111-110 lead.  After a Phoenix timeout, Adams had the ball out top and threw to the corner to Erickson who had the ball go right through his hands and out of bounds with 9 seconds left.

The Warriors called time and Dickey got the inbounds pass and was fouled one second later.  He missed the first free throw but made the second, so the Suns still had a chance to tie it.  They were out of timeouts but got it to Van Arsdale who pushed it up the floor and got it to Erickson.  Keith caught the ball this time and nailed a long jumper over Barry at 2 seconds to tie the game at 112.  Golden State missed a desperation shot and we were headed to overtime and Keith Erickson had second life.

When Alvan Adams grabbed the first defensive rebound for Phoenix, he threw a full-length touchdown pass to Westphal for a layup for the first score of the extra period.  On Phoenix’s next possession though, Westphal charged into Warriors reserve Charles Dudley for his 6th foul.  This brought rookie Ricky Sobers back into the game.  Sobers had looked his age so far with too much dribbling and turnovers and had been on the bench for Van Arsdale.  Sobers would make a free throw after Williams tied the game with a runner.  Williams was also running his team at crunch time and would make some inexperienced plays.  Gus would be fouled trying to go coast-to-coast with under 2:00 left and would tie the game at 115 with a free throw.  Most of Williams’ mistakes were dribbling too much and having to end up taking shots instead of Barry, Smith or Wilkes.  With 1:12 left though, Barry did shoot and make a turnaround from the free throw line for a 117-115 Warriors lead.  After Adams missed a leaner, Smith rebounded and threw a full-length pass to Barry for a layup and that looked to be the game with Golden State up four.

But then it was Ricky Sobers turn to redeem himself.  He dribbled down and hit a clutch pull-up jumper from just inside the free throw line at 0:34.  The Warriors ran down the shot clock but the ball ended up in Williams’ hands and he missed a tough bank shot from in-close.  Van Arsdale pushed the ball after the rebound and gave it to Sobers.  Ricky went to the same spot that he just nailed a jumper and got fouled after a pump fake with 2 seconds left.  The rookie made the two free throws to tie the game.  After a Warriors timeout, Barry just missed banking in a long turnaround jumper (the ball was too soft off the backboard and hit the back rim).

Golden State started off the 2nd overtime well as George Johnson (who was in for the fouled out Clifford Ray) got an offensive rebound and putback and then Barry hit a jumper.  The Warriors had the ball back briefly after a Phoenix miss but a long pass was intercepted by Sobers who pushed it back and gave it to Erickson in the corner for a jumper.  Then a Van Arsdale underhand layup tied the game at 123.  On Phoenix’s next possession, Erickson hit another corner jumper.  Then after a Warriors miss, Adams deflected the rebound to Sobers who streaked ahead of the field for a layup.  Ricky then fouled out but third-string point guard Phil Lumpkin made his contribution by dishing to Erickson for two more jumpers and then hitting a free throw for a 133-123 Suns lead.  The Warriors scored the final six points but the last two were at the buzzer.

Surprisingly for the Warriors, they were in a series.

Golden State starters (points scored)

Rick Barry (26) – Small Forward

Jamaal Wilkes (24) – Power Forward

Clifford Ray (11) – Center

Charles Johnson (2) – Point Guard

Phil Smith (30) – Shooting Guard

Golden State bench (points scored)

Gus Williams (9)

Charles Dudley (2)

Derrek Dickey (18)

George Johnson (5)

Jeff Mullins (0)

Dwight Davis (2)

Golden State Coach: Al Attles

Phoenix starters (points scored)

Garfield Heard (22) – Small Forward

Curtis Perry (6) – Power Forward

Alvan Adams (19) – Center

Ricky Sobers (15) – Point Guard

Paul Westphal (15) – Shooting Guard

Phoenix bench (points scored)

Dick Van Arsdale (20)

Keith Erickson (28)

Nate Hawthorne (4)

Dennis Awtrey (3)

Phil Lumpkin (1)

Phoenix Coach: John MacLeod

Avan Adams

Alvan Adams claimed his rookie of the year award at halftime of this game *photo courtesy of Bleacher Report

May 16, 1976 – Western Conference Finals, Game 7: Phoenix Suns 94 @Golden State Warriors 86

Golden State after their heartbreaking Game 4 loss blew the Suns out in Game 5 at home.  Then they lost another heartbreaker in Game 6.  Alvan Adams scored a tough layup with 12 seconds left to put Phoenix up 105-104.  Then Gar Heard blocked Jamaal Wilkes’ last second jumper from the corner.

So Game 7 in Oakland started tightly for both teams as it took a minute and a half for Ricky Sobers to get a free throw line jumper to bounce in for the first score of the game.  The possession after Phil Smith tied the game, Sobers and Rick Barry got into a fight away from the ball.  There were some punches thrown but not too much else.  Originally it was thought that both Sobers and Barry were kicked out of the game (an obvious advantage to Phoenix) but both players stayed.

The atmosphere tensed just a bit.  Every time Sobers touched the ball for the rest of the game, the crowd booed him soundly.  While Sobers missed his first few shots after the fight, Barry nailed three straight jumpers to give the Warriors a 10-4 lead.  Adams scored Phoenix’s next 6 points to keep them close.  The teams actually went back and forth until back-to-back Charles Johnson field goals put Golden State up 26-18 late in the period.  But Johnson then committed his third foul and had to go out leading the game with 10 points. Gar Heard hit a customary high-arcing baseline jumper and then two free throws to end the quarter.

The Warriors increased their 4 point lead early in the second quarter as Phil Smith hit two jumpers and Barry got a layup on the break.  That field goal would be Barry’s last until late in the fourth quarter.  After Heard hit another jumper to cut the lead to 32-24, Smith missed two free throws.  The Warriors had more chances to increase their lead but were plagued by over-dribbling and one-on-one play.  This would prove to be their downfall.  Curtis Perry, Garfield Heard and Paul Westphal brought the Suns back to within one.  Then the hero of Game 4 Keith Erickson gave the Suns their first lead since 4-2 with a jumper.  But Golden State made a run before the half.  A Wilkes offensive rebound and putback and a Charles Dudley shot from the post over Phil Lumpkin (the only player in the game shorter than the 6’2″ Dudley) gave the Warriors a 44-40 lead.  Then Smith got his 12th point on a bank shot on the break.  Wilkes then nailed a fadeaway after Adams made a jumper to give Golden State a 48-42 halftime lead.

After Smith got a steal and a layup to put the Warriors up eight, Sobers made his first field since the fight.  Then after a Perry second shot, Westphal stole the ball from Clifford Ray and took it coast-to-coast for a left-handed slam over the hustling Smith who fouled Westphal as well.  The three-point play got the Suns excited and cut the lead to 50-49.  The Suns eventually tied it at 53 before Smith hit another jumper on a Charles Johnson behind-the-back pass.  This would be Smith’s 18th and last point.  Then Sobers and Wilkes matched each other with back-to-back field goals (one of Sobers’ baskets was on the fast break against Barry where he got the ball caught on his hip but was able to get the shot high off the glass).  Westphal then hit a jumper and on the next Warriors possession, blocked Wilkes shot out to half court.  Paul ran the ball down and Sobers finished with a short jumper.  Phoenix held that two-point lead at 67-65 at the end of the quarter.

After an Awtrey free throw, the Warriors got some momentum with back-to-back jumpers by Wilkes and Charles Johnson.  An Erickson free throw line jumper though gave the Suns the lead for good.  Phoenix built its lead to 76-72 before Barry and Clifford Ray ran a pick-and-roll but Clifford dropped Barry’s hard pass in front of the basket.  Adams picked it up and took it coast-to-coast for a slam.  After another Warriors turnover, Perry hit a baseline jumper for an eight point lead.  A Heard jumper and two free throws answered two Warriors field goals (including Barry’s first since early in the second quarter).  But then Phil Smith missed two big free throws.  The Suns followed with four free throws and an 88-76 lead.  The Warriors put shots in but the Suns answered each time.  The dagger came with 1:35 left when Ricky Sobers (the antagonist for all Warriors fans that day) hit a jumper from the free throw line at the end of the shot clock to put Phoenix up 92-80.

With that, this would be the last time to this day that the Warriors advanced to the Conference Finals.  The Champs lacked the continuity and poise that they had the year before.  There simply wasn’t as much teamwork and ball movement as the year before and I wonder at least if trading Butch Beard contributed to that.  Yes, Smith was more talented and a much better scorer than Beard but was not the passer or defender Beard was and was the one most guilty of the Warriors dependence to go to one-on-one play.  Perhaps Smith wouldn’t have stood for another year on the bench.  One could and should also give credit to the young 42-40 Phoenix Suns who over-achieved beyond anyone’s expectations.  This would continue in the Finals against the Boston Celtics.

Phoenix starters (points scored)

Garfield Heard (21) – Small Forward

Curtis Perry (12) – Power Forward

Alvan Adams (18) – Center

Ricky Sobers (12) – Point Guard

Paul Westphal (21) – Shooting Guard

Phoenix bench (points scored)

Dick Van Arsdale (2)

Keith Erickson (7)

Dennis Awtrey (1)

Phil Lumpkin (0)

Phoenix Coach: John MacLeod

Golden State starters (points scored)

Rick Barry (20) – Small Forward

Jamaal Wilkes (15) – Power Forward

Clifford Ray (2) – Center

Charles Johnson (14) – Point Guard

Phil Smith (18) – Shooting Guard

Golden State bench (points scored)

Charles Dudley (9)

Derrek Dickey (4)

George Johnson (4)

Golden State Coach: Al Attles


In his first year with the Suns, Paul Westphal led them to the NBA Finals *photo courtesy of Bleacher Report

June 2, 1976 – NBA Finals, Game 4: Boston Celtics 107 @Phoenix Suns 109

The first two games in Boston went according to what the experts were saying: The Celtics easily won and took a 2-0 lead.  Phoenix coach John MacLeod bitterly complained about the officiating and how the Celtics were allowed to be rough and physical on the Suns.  So for Game 3, the officials called it more closely and now it was Boston coach Tommy Heinsohn’s turn to complain.  In the second quarter, Phoenix guard Ricky Sobers got into a fistfight with Celtics’ backup guard Kevin Stacom.  Both were thrown out (Sobers was the one who got into the fight with Rick Barry in Game 7 versus Golden State – neither was kicked out of that one.. which makes me think Sobers should have gotten into it with Havlicek or Cowens, then he’d still be in the game).  After that, the Suns were inspired led by Alvan Adams.  Phoenix had a 23-point lead and held on for a 105-98 win.  Adams finished with 33.

For Game 4, there were many more fouls called.  I don’t have an official stat for the game but after three quarters there had been 55 total fouls.  There’s also the stat that the Celtics shot 39 free throws (making 31) while Phoenix was 35-for-41 from the line.  The game started out slowly, especially for the Suns.  Jo Jo White made a corner jumper on the first possession of the game and then both teams went two minutes before a Cowen’s three-point play put the Celtics up 5-0.  It wasn’t until 9:08 was left that Paul Westphal made two free throws for the Suns first points.  Then it was another minute until a Westphal corner jumper was Phoenix’s first field goal.  But Boston couldn’t take advantage of the slow start of Phoenix and eventually fouls became a factor as the Suns got going.  Heinsohn got a technical after arguing a loose ball foul on Cowens.  Westphal made the technical and Adams made the two free throws on Cowens’ foul to tie the game at 7.  Ricky Sobers made two jumpers for 4 of Phoenix’s next 6 points on their 6-2 run.  Then the Celtics had to call a timeout after a Gar Heard steal and pull-up jumper for a 15-9 Suns lead.  The Suns would eventually score 10 consecutive points on free throws in the quarter.  The Celtics stayed in the game helped by their bench (which included Havlicek, as he was still recovering from a foot injury).  Phoenix took a 35-30 lead after one quarter as Keith Erickson nailed a long shot at the buzzer (from three-point range if there was a three-point shot).

The game stayed close and the Celtics briefly had leads in the second quarter (including 55-51) but the Suns closed the half on a 9-2 run and led 60-57 at the break.  Westphal had 19 first half points and White had 11.  The third quarter started back and forth as well.  A Cowens bucket gave Boston a 71-70 lead halfway through the quarter but then the Celtics wouldn’t score for the next three minutes.  Meanwhile, Sobers got a layup on a cut and Curtis Perry got another layup on a Westphal lob pass.  Cowens committed his fourth foul and Sobers made two free throws and then got a steal from Havlicek and a layup.  Ricky then made two more free throws and Erickson completed the 12-0 run with a jumper.  Charlie Scott made two straight baskets (after banging his knee and groin area against a camera trying to save a ball) to bring the Celtics back.  But then he committed his fifth foul.  Cowens would get his fifth before the end of the quarter.  Phoenix led 87-80 going into the fourth.

Ricky Sobers committed his fifth foul on a Jo Jo White three-point play to start the fourth.  The Celtics continued to stay close but the Suns continued to stay ahead.  Adams would have a big fourth as he, at one stretch, scored 8 of Phoenix’s 10 points.  This concluded with a baseline drive and slam to put the Suns up 101-95.  That would be Alvan’s 20th and last point.  A Westphal driving layup increased the lead to 8.  Things didn’t look much better for the Celtics as Scott fouled out for the fourth time in the Finals (and just to remind you, this was the fourth game of the Finals).  But veterans Havlicek and Don Nelson (who was in his last season and had come into the game for the first time when Scott fouled out) made jumpers.  After a Perry reverse layup put Phoenix up 105-99, Silas got a tip-in and Cowens got a layup on a White assist.  At 1:34, Sobers put in a driving bank shot in the lane.  White responded with a jumper at 1:20.  The Suns ran down the clock and Perry got it inside to Heard who tipped in his own miss at 58 seconds for a 109-105 Suns lead.  Cowens came back with a driving hook shot 8 seconds later.  Phoenix again ran down the clock and the Celtics committed their foul to give at 34 seconds and Phoenix got a new shot clock.  The Suns called a timeout and then moved the ball around until Erickson missed a jumper at 15 seconds.  Boston got the rebound and did not call timeout.  Havlicek, at the top of the floor, was looking inside for Cowens but the big redhead couldn’t get open.  So White broke free at the right wing at 4 seconds.  He got the ball but airballed a tough shot over Sobers at the buzzer.

The Suns had tied the series and this set the stage for a classic back in Boston in Game 5.

Boston starters (points scored)

Steve Kuberski (2) – Small Forward

Paul Silas (18) – Power Forward

Dave Cowens (22) – Center

Jo Jo White (25) – Point Guard

Charlie Scott (14) – Shooting Guard

Boston bench (points scored)

John Havlicek (13)

Don Nelson (2)

Glenn McDonald (0)

Kevin Stacom (2)

Jim Ard (9)

Boston Coach: Tom Heinsohn

Phoenix starters (points scored)

Garfield Heard (19) – Small Forward

Curtis Perry (7) – Power Forward

Alvan Adams (20) – Center

Ricky Sobers (14) – Point Guard

Paul Westphal (28) – Shooting Guard

Phoenix bench (points scored)

Dick Van Arsdale (12)

Keith Erickson (8)

Nate Hawthorne (0)

Dennis Awtrey (1)

Phil Lumpkin (0)

Phoenix Coach: John MacLeod

June 4, 1976 – NBA Finals, Game 5: Phoenix Suns 126 @Boston Celtics 128 (3ot)

This is the big one.  The game they are still talking about today, and deservedly so.  Lots of games have big shots and such but this game had that as well as some peculiar things to say the least.

The Suns had surprisingly tied the series helped by their boisterous Phoenix crowd.  So back in Boston for a series that wasn’t exactly expected to return to Beantown after the first two games, the crowd had a standard to live up to.  Brent Musberger mentioned that this was the most passion he’d seen in a Boston crowd all year, adding that “we’re in for quire an evening.”  Goodness knows how right he was.

The crowd had a lot to cheer for early.  Cowens rebounded White’s miss off the tip for an easy basket.  After Sobers answered with a free throw, Silas hit an outside jumper.  And after Perry hit a turnaround, Silas started a Celtics run with a driving layup.  White hit a free throw for a 7-3 Celtics lead.  Then Havlicek hit a jumper and Phoenix called a timeout.  Havlicek was making his first start since Game 4 of the Eastern Finals versus Cleveland and his assault continued after the timeout.  He got a fast break layup and then hit a pull-up jumper off a White assist and Phoenix had to call another timeout down 13-3.  Phoenix called a third timeout of the period after Cowens hit a jumper for a 28-10 lead and the crowd was going bonker-nuts.  The Celtics ended the first period up 36-18 as Jim Ard hit a jumper at the buzzer.

Late in the first period, the Suns lost Keith Erickson for the game with a sprained ankle.  They started to put together some stops and got out on the break in the second quarter.  The Suns cut the lead to 46-39 before White ignited the Celtics back to a 61-45 lead at the half.  In the third quarter, the Suns again made a run and were able to tie the game at 68 with under 4:00 left on two Alvan Adams free throws.  Cowens would spark Boston to a 77-72 lead after three.  On the last play of the period, he drew Adams’ fifth foul.

Cowens would continue in the fourth quarter as the Celtics built a nine-point lead.  Westphal would get the Suns going as he hit back-to-back baskets to cut Boston’s lead to 92-87, then Ricky Sobers hit a pull-up.  The Suns got the ball back but couldn’t score and the Celtics finally broke their ice as Paul Silas tipped in a miss.  It was 94-89 with under a minute to go.  Then Westphal hit a bank shot from the post off an inbounds pass.  Then Charlie Scott brought it into the frontcourt.  He got past Westphal briefly but Paul knocked the ball away and raced to the other end.  Sobers got the ball back to Westphal who hit a layup as he drew Charlie Scott’s 6th foul.  Westphal’s free throw tied the game with 39 seconds left.

On the Celtics next possession, White missed a jumper and Cowens was called for pushing off Curtis Perry on the rebound (and very unpopular call in Boston to say the least, but a good call).  Perry made the first free throw for Phoenix’s first lead of the game at 95-94, but he was woefully short on the second and Silas rebounded and called timeout at 22 seconds.  The Celtics went right to Havlicek inside, and he was fouled by Adams who came over to help and reached in.  Adams fouled out with 20 points.  At 19 seconds, Havlicek hit the first free throw to tie the game.  He missed the second but the ball was back-tapped back to him.  After moving the ball around, Hondo missed an outside shot at 8 seconds.  Phoenix got the rebound and called timeout with 5 seconds left, but the clock ticked down to 3 seconds.  This did not change despite howls by the Phoenix coaches and players.  If the Suns thought they got screwed then, it was nothing compared to what happened next.

Gar Heard’s inbounds pass was deflected by Cowens and grabbed by White for overtime.  Although before the clock officially ran out, Boston’s Silas was standing right in front of the official calling time out.  The caviar to this was that the Celtics were out of time outs (so Silas could have been Chris Webber before there was Chris Webber).  But referee Richie Powers didn’t acknowledge the timeout because he didn’t want to see the game end like that.

In the first 3 minutes of overtime, a Silas tip-in, Cowens jumper and White jumper was countered only by a Garfield Heard jumper in the lane.  But the Suns would come back again after Perry hit a banker and Heard hit a high-arcing baseline shot.  The game was tied again at 101 with 45 seconds left.  Perry rebounded Cowens’ miss at 29 seconds and called timeout.  The Celtics committed their foul to give at 17 seconds and gave Phoenix a new 24 (or, in other words, the last shot).  But Sobers being pressured by White lost the ball on the baseline with 3 seconds left and Silas called a legal and recognized timeout.  But Havlicek couldn’t get a good shot off over Heard and the game went into a 2nd overtime.

This is when the game gets crazy.  It started out with White and Sobers going back and forth.  White started it with a jumper off a Cowens handoff.  Sobers responded on a layup from Perry.  Jo Jo came back by canning a jumper with 3 seconds left on the shot clock.  But Ricky topped it by hitting a jumper over Don Nelson with 1 second left on the clock while Nelson fouled him.  The free throw gave Phoenix a 106-105 lead.  Cowens came back with two free throws for a Celtics lead but there wouldn’t be scoring again for another two minutes.  But action did happen.  Cowens made an inside move on Adams’ backup Dennis Awtrey and drilled him in the face with an elbow while making a basket.  It didn’t count and Cowens fouled out on the play.  Awtrey then fouled out a possession later on a loose ball foul with 28 seconds left.  White then broke the ice with a driving layup at 19 seconds to give Boston a 109-106 lead.

After a Phoenix timeout, Heard inbounded to Dick Van Arsdale who made a jumper from the left wing with 15 seconds left.  Then Cowens’ backup Jim Ard threw the inbounds pass toward Havlicek but Westphal deflected and saved the pass in to Perry.  Curtis missed a jumper at 12 seconds but the ball after being tipped by Havlicek came back to Perry.  He this time made the jumper from the left corner after pump-faking Havlicek with 5 seconds left.  Phoenix had improbably grabbed a 110-109 lead.

The Celtics called time and Nelson inbounded the Havlicek.  John drove against Sobers and banked in a leaner as the time seemed to expire.  Thinking the time had expired (or not caring at all) the Boston fans stormed the court and one of them attacked referee Powers (and as we covered earlier, the Boston fans should be thanking Richie.. but he was a referee and a lot of them were inebriated, I assume).  As chaos ensued, it was determined that there was still 1 second left on the clock.  The Celtics had already gone into the locker room and Havlicek had taken off his uniform and shoes while White had cut off the tape around his ankles, but they were ordered back onto the court.  The crowd was eventually cleared but they surrounded the end of the court.  The Suns were going to get the ball under their own basket and to win they would have to throw it the length of the court.

There was a time when full-court plays were executed beautifully for game-winners (think Grant Hill’s long pass to Christian Laettner in 1992, or Cincinnati’s full-court pass to Kenyon Martin at the free throw line who hit a cutting Melvin Levett for a winning dunk against Duke in 1998).  But this was obviously before that time and the thought of throwing the ball the length of the court and getting a shot off in 1 second wasn’t conceivable (although the Soviets had pulled it off against the Americans in the 1972 Olympics.. but that doesn’t count, right? The end of that game was bogus and we couldn’t copy the USSR in any way, right?).  So Westphal called a timeout even though the Suns were out of them.  This time Powers recognized the illegal timeout (although I think he had to be convinced that, yes, Phoenix actually did want to call an illegal timeout).  This would give the Celtics a technical free throw but the Suns would get it at half court.

White, in an under-rated pressure situation as it turned out, made the technical free throw (just imagine if he had missed and the Suns scored like they did, they would have won the game on that!).  Then came the play that you’ve probably seen thousands of times if you’re a basketball fan.  Perry inbounded to Heard out at the top of the key.  Gar turned around and high-arced in a jumper at the buzzer as Phoenix went crazy and as Boston fans ready to storm the court again sat stunned.

At the start of the third overtime, the clock passed midnight in Boston.  Musberger made a great line that the 42-40 Suns still hadn’t turned into pumpkins.  The teams went back-and-forth in the first 3 minutes for their first 6 points in overtime.  In those first 3 minutes, Paul Silas became the third Celtic to foul out.  In for him came unheralded Glenn McDonald.  With the game tied at 118, the Celtics went on the break and White found Glenn for a layup.  Then after a Suns miss, McDonald nailed a jumper on a Havlicek assist with 1:14 left for a 122-118 Boston lead.

After Westphal hit a turnaround fadeaway banker, White hit a jumper at 55 seconds for his 33rd point and a 4-point Boston lead again.  McDonald then rebounded a Van Arsdale miss and was fouled.  Glenn made the two free throws for his 6th point in the third overtime.  After a Sobers driving layup for his 25th point, Ard made two free throws and it was 128-122 Celtics.  Westphal then raced down court and hit a twisting banker at 26 seconds.  The Celtics passed the ball around but at 18 seconds a pass went through McDonald’s hands and Sobers hit Westphal with a full-length pass and a layup for a two-point game.

The Celtics again inbounded and passed it around.  One of the passes was almost deflected and stolen by Westphal.  But White controlled the ball and ran out the clock.  Boston had won the longest game in NBA history to that point and won Game 6 in Phoenix that started 39 hours (and three time-zones away) after Game 5 ended.

Phoenix starters (points scored)

Garfield Heard (17) – Small Forward

Curtis Perry (23) – Power Forward

Alvan Adams (20) – Center

Ricky Sobers (25) – Point Guard

Paul Westphal (25) – Shooting Guard

Phoenix bench (points scored)

Dick Van Arsdale (5)

Keith Erickson (0)

Nate Hawthorne (4)

Dennis Awtrey (7)

Phil Lumpkin (0)

Phoenix Coach: John MacLeod

Boston starters (points scored)

John Havlicek (22) – Small Forward

Paul Silas (17) – Power Forward

Dave Cowens (26) – Center

Jo Jo White (33) – Point Guard

Charlie Scott (6) – Shooting Guard

Boston bench (points scored)

Don Nelson (4)

Glenn McDonald (8)

Steve Kuberski (4)

Kevin Stacom (0)

Jim Ard (8)

Boston Coach: Tom Heinsohn

1976-final-boston-celtics nba_a_mcdonald_gb1_576 nba1976bospho320_original_display_image

At top, Havlicek’s leaner at the end of the 2nd overtime was thought originally to have ended the game.  In middle, Glenn McDonald hits a free throw for his 6th point of the third overtime and a 126-120 Boston lead.  At bottom, the crowd can finally storm the court and celebrate a victory *photos courtesy of NBA Arena, ESPN, and Bleacher Report


From → NBA

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