I vividly remember watching the 1976 NBA Finals, which pitted the Boston Celtics against the Phoenix Suns. The Suns had finished the season two games over .500, while the Boston Celtics, well, they were the Boston Celtics. They had a rotation that boasted former MVP Dave Cowens, former NBA Sixth Man John Havlicek, rebounding master Paul Silas, starting guards Jo Jo White, Charlie Scott, plus an underrated bench that included Don Nelson, Steve Kuberski, Glenn McDonald, Jim Ard, and Kevin Stacom.
The Celtics easily took the first two games at home, 98-87 in game 1 and 105-90 in game 2. Everyone immediately started talking sweep. The Suns answered this talk by taking the next two games on their home court, 105-98 and 109-107. That brought the series back to Boston tied at 2.
Celtics' fans blew a gasket. What the heck is going on with the green? They can't handle these bunch of no-names bums from Arizona? The Boston Celtics suck! Sadly, I was one of these Celtics' fans. This should have been a sweep, I said to myself, and now, all of a sudden, the Celtics had to win game 5 or face elimination on the road.
Game 5 was a microcosm for the entire series. I won't give you a blow-by-blow account of the game, which most observers consider the greatest playoff game in NBA history, but I will say this: that game was a testament to the heart of a champion, the heart of a team that just wouldn't lay down no matter how far they got behind or how much time was left on the clock.
I'm talking about the Phoenix Suns.
The game started with the Celtics storming to a 22-point first quarter lead. The Celtics lead dwindled by three in the second quarter. During the third and fourth quarters, the Suns whittled the lead further, but still trailed by 7 to 14 points most of the way. Down 5 with a minute to go (I REPEAT, DOWN 5 WITH A MINUTE TO GO and no three point line to help them cut the lead in a hurry), the Suns staged a furious comeback to tie the game and send it into OT.
During the first extra frame, the Celtics promptly took command with a couple of quick baskets. The Suns meanwhile didn't score a point for the first three minutes of OT #1. Worse, rookie of the year Alvin Adams fouled out and Paul Westphal suffered what looked like a serious leg injury. But next thing you know, Westphal is back on the court limping around, the Suns make a couple steals, you look up at the scoreboard, and the game is tied with one minute to go in the first overtime.
This is pretty much how the rest of the game went. Every time you wanted the Suns to lay down and die, they summoned up the heart and intestinal fortitude to tie the game, including this all-time punch in the gut delivered by Garfield Heard. Now contrast this with the LA Lakers, who notoriously quit competing against the Celtics twice in the same season, once during game 6 of the NBA Finals, and once six months earlier at Staples.
I'd like to call the 1976 Suns a rag-tag bunch of overachievers, but that would be an injustice to their memory. What they really were was a team of consummate professionals who understood the game of basketball and the heart of competition both come down to one word, D-E-S-I-R-E. As a young Celtics' fan, you just wanted the Suns to roll over and wave the white flag. You wanted the green to win. The green did win, but it wasn't without overcoming one of the most relentless teams I've ever seen play--the 1976 Phoenix Suns.
This team from Arizona deserves more praise than they get from basketball historians. The reason they don't get any respect is because that team as then constituted never made a return trip to the Finals. What happened, you might ask? Bill Walton (1977), Dennis Johnson (1978, 1979), and Magic Johnson (1980) happened. No one else was getting out of the West those years except for the Blazers, Sonics, and Lakers.