1976: Celtics versus Suns (Hondo’s Last Finals)

Background

Coming off their 1974 NBA championship season, Boston was the favorite to win back-to-back titles. In 1975, the Celtics won 60 games but were disappointed when their bid for a repeat championship ended with a loss to the underdog Washington Bullets in a six-game conference final. The following season, Boston made a key lineup change by acquiring Charlie Scott from the Phoenix Suns and won a conference-best 54 games in the regular season. In the playoffs, the Celtics outlasted 1975 league MVP Bob McAdoo and the Buffalo Braves in a six-game conference semifinal series. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Boston defeated the upstart Cleveland Cavaliers in six games to reach the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons and seeking the franchise’s 13th NBA championship. Entering the Finals, the Celtics were riding a six-game home winning streak.

The Suns entered the NBA in 1968 and reached the playoffs for the first time in 1970 but lost in the first round to the Los Angeles Lakers. In the 1975 draft, the Suns filled their center position when they selected Alvan Adams fourth overall. Teamed with off-season acquisition Paul Westphal from the Boston Celtics and mid-season acquisition Gar Heard, Adams led Phoenix to 42 wins and the number three seed in the playoffs–earning him the Rookie of the Year award. In the playoffs, the Suns upset the Seattle SuperSonics in six games to reach their first Western Conference Finals. Facing the reigning champion Golden State Warriors, Phoenix trailed the series 3-2 before winning game six by a single point to stay alive. With a shocking road victory in game seven, the Suns advanced to the first NBA Finals in franchise history.

Lineups

The Celtics’ back court featured a significant change, as shooting guard Charlie Scott joined the team to start alongside point guard Jo Jo White. Paul Silas slid over to small forward in the front court alongside power forward Steve Kuberski and 1973 league MVP center Dave Cowens.

Off the bench, Kevin Stacom served as the first reserve guard, and John Havlicek resumed his role as the sixth man on the perimeter. Don Nelson served as the first forward off the bench, and Jim Ard provided further depth in the post. Glenn McDonald, Jerome Anderson, and Tom Boswell played sparingly in the NBA Finals.

Off-season acquisition Paul Westphal arrived from the Celtics to start at point guard in the back court alongside Ricky Sobers at shooting guard. After a mid-season trade, Gar Heard arrived to start at forward in the front court next to fellow forward Curtis Perry and rookie center Alvan Adams.

The Suns utilized Dick Van Arsdale off the bench as the first reserve guard. Keith Erickson provided depth on the perimeter at small forward, and Dennis Awtrey functioned as the first big man off the bench. Nate Hawthorne, Phil Lumpkin, and Pat Riley all played limited minutes in the NBA Finals.

Game One: Suns 87, Celtics 98

The Suns hung close throughout the opener but could never climb back after trailing early. Adams led all scorers with 26 points but was outdone by Cowens’ outstanding all-around game with 25 points, 21 rebounds, and 10 assists. Phoenix’s starters struggled from the field as Perry, Westphal, and Sobers combined to shoot 13/41. Boston’s balanced attack was supported by Havlicek, White, and Scott combining for 53 points as the Celtics took a 1-0 lead in the series.

Game Two: Suns 90, Celtics 105

The Celtics didn’t score for the first three minutes as Phoenix grabbed the lead after the first quarter, but Boston responded by running the Suns out of the game in the second and third quarters. The Eastern Conference champions effectively put the game out of reach with a 20-2 run to start the second half, led by Havlicek’s team-high 23 points, Silas and Cowens’ double-doubles, and White’s 11 points and nine assists. Westphal led all scorers with 28 points, and Adams delivered a double-double, but Phoenix fell apart down the stretch and now trailed the series 2-0 headed back to Arizona for games three and four.

Game Three: Celtics 98, Suns 105

The Suns built an early lead thanks to Adams’ early 12 points to start the game and led by as much as 23 points in the third quarter before the Celtics rallied. Boston fought back to within two late in the fourth but lost Cowens when he fouled out. Westphal and Adams came up with big baskets down the stretch to preserve the Suns’ lead, and the duo combined for 55 points to lead the team. White led the Celtics with 24 points to go along with Cowens’ 13/17, but Phoenix looked to even the series in game four.

Game Four: Celtics 107, Suns 109

Looking to tie series up at two games apiece, the Suns missed their first eight field goals but managed to take a slim lead into halftime and extend it to seven going into the fourth quarter. The Celtics fought back to within two points late in the period before Heard tipped in a miss to put Phoenix up four. Cowens made a running hook to make it a two point game under a minute to play. After a defensive stop, Boston went to White for the game-tying jumper but his attempt was just off. Westphal led the Suns with 28 points alongside Heard’s double-double and Adams’ 20 points. Jo Jo led the Celtics with 25 points, and Silas and Cowens both delivered double-doubles, but the series was now tied headed back to Boston for game five.

Game Five: Suns 126, Celtics 128 (3OT)

The Celtics jumped out in front early and led by 18 after the first quarter, but Phoenix climbed back in the third. Late in the fourth and trailing, Westphal and Perry scored seven quick points to put the Suns ahead by a point. Havlicek was fouled and made one free throw to tie the game, and neither team could score in the final seconds. After a stalemate first overtime, Boston found themselves ahead by three late in the second overtime when Van Arsdale hit a jumper to cut the lead to one. Westphal stole the inbounds pass, and Perry hit a jumper off an offensive rebound to put the Suns ahead again. Hondo hit a running shot that appeared to win the game, but two seconds remained on the clock when the fans rushed the court. Chaos ensued on the court, and with Phoenix out of timeouts, Westphal elected to call for time–enacting a technical foul that allowed the Suns to take the ball out at midcourt after a made free throw. Gar Heard proceeded to hit a miracle jumper with one second left to force a third overtime. The Celtics pulled away late in the final period of play, taking a 3-2 series lead after the 3OT thriller. Four different players fouled out, but Jo Jo White’s heroic 33 points carried Boston to within a game of the world championship.

Game Six: Celtics 87, Suns 80

Both teams were exhausted after the game five showdown, but Boston built a narrow lead by halftime. The Suns grabbed a one point lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Celtics embarked on an 11-4 run to pull away down the stretch. Charlie Scott came up big with 25 points to lead Boston along with Cowens and Silas’ double-doubles. Adams delivered 20 points to lead Phoenix, but the Celtics claimed their second championship in three years with a game six victory. For his heroics throughout the series, Jo Jo White was named the Finals MVP.

Aftermath

The Celtics’ bid for a repeat championship ended when they lost in the 1977 conference semifinals to rival Philadelphia 76ers. After consecutive losing seasons, Boston returned to contention in 1980 with Rookie of the Year Larry Bird. The team would lose in the Eastern Conference Finals again to Philadelphia, but earned revenge against the 76ers by winning the 1981 conference finals in seven games to reach their 15th championship series.

Phoenix missed the playoffs in 1977 but made it back to the conference finals in 1979, only to lose to the eventual champion Seattle SuperSonics. The Suns would lose in the Western Conference Finals four times (1979, 1984, 1989, 1990) after their 1976 NBA Finals appearance before beating the SuperSonics in the 1993 conference finals behind league MVP Charles Barkley to make their second championship series appearance.

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