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On This Date in Sports June 4, 1976: The Greatest NBA Game Ever Played

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

The Boston Celtics hold off the Phoenix Suns 128-126 in an unforgettable triple-overtime classic Game 5 of the NBA Finals at the Boston Garden. It was the first NBA Finals game to go to triple overtime. The series was tied, and the winner would get a significant leg up on the NBA Championship. Phoenix rose again and again in overtime, as Gar Heard hit a buzzer-beater at the second of the second overtime to tie the game again. With Jo-Jo White leading the way, Boston held on to win and took the series in six games. 

It was a tale of two teams in the 1976 NBA Finals. The Boston Celtics, winners of 12 NBA Championships, sought their second title in three years for coach Tom Heinsohn. The Phoenix Suns were the cinderella team, making their first NBA Finals appearance after making the playoffs for the first time in six years and the second time in franchise history. The Suns posted a record of 42-40 for coach John MacLeod. The Suns needed a strong March to rise up into playoff position. It was only their second playoff appearance. Phoenix upset the Seattle Supersonics in six games to reach the Western Conference Finals. It was their first playoff series win. The Suns then eclipsed the defending champion Golden State Warriors in seven games. Winning Game 7 in Oakland 94-86. 

The Celtics posted a record of 54-28, finishing first in the East. The Celtics were coming off a disappointing loss in the Eastern Conference Finals. They had won their 12th NBA Championship in 1974, their first since the end of the Bill Russell era. The Celtics shook off a challenge from the Buffalo Braves in six games to reach the Eastern Finals for the fourth straight season. To reach the NBA Finals, they also needed six games to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics went 3-0 at home in each series, winning a crucial Game 5 after splitting the first four games. 

With John Havlicek playing with a sore heel, the Celtics recorded a 98-87 win in Game 1 at the Boston Garden. Dave Cowens had a big night, recording a triple-double with 25 points, 21 rebounds, and 10 assists. In Game 2, the Celtics continued to command the parquet floor, pulling away with a 20-2 run after halftime to record a 105-90 win. It was the 12th straight loss for the Suns in Boston, as Havlicek scored 23 points off the bench. 

As they had in their first two series, the Celtics left Boston with a 2-0 lead, but the road proved hard again. The Celtics endured a five-minute scoring drought in the second quarter as the Suns won 105-98. Alvin Adams led the way with 33 points and 15 boards. The Suns would even the series with a 109-107 win in Game 4. The best game of the series to date as Ricky Sobers hit a clutch basket late to win the game. It was the first NBA game in June. 

Tied 2-2, the Celtics again faced a crucial must-win game at home. Boston started strong doubling up the Suns in the first quarter, 36-18. The Celtics appeared to be well on their way to an easy win with a 61-45 halftime lead, when the Suns fought their way back from the ashes and forced overtime, with the game tied 95-95. Boston's Paul Silas attempted to call a timeout near the end of regulation with the Celtics out of timeouts. Referee Richie Powers appeared to have seen Silas signal the timeout but did not grant it. If he had, the Celtics would have been assessed a technical foul. The Celtics appeared to have won the game at the end of the first overtime as John Havlicek hit a game-winner at the buzzer. However, the clock did not start on the inbound, and the shot was ruled to have come after the buzzer, sending the game to a second overtime. 

The drama was cranked up to a higher level in double-overtime with Paul Silas, Charlie Scott, and Dave Cowens all fouling out for Boston. At the end of the five-minute period, the Suns took a 110-109 lead on a 15-footer by Curtis Perry. Havlicek got the ball and hit an off-balanced leaner to seemingly win the game 111-110 as fans rushed the court. The game was not over, as there were two seconds remaining. Ordered was restored as Paul Westphal called timeout for Phoenix. The Suns did not have a timeout, giving Boston a technical free throw, which Jo-Jo White made to increase the lead to 112-110. The Suns would get the ball and had one second to make a miracle play to tie the game. At the time, teams did not get to move the ball on a timeout but could move it after a technical. Fans continued to reign havoc, even interrupting the Suns' huddle. After order was restored Gar Heard off an inbound from Perry, hit a turnaround jumper to tie the game once again. Called by many the greatest game in NBA history, it was the first NBA Finals game to go to a third overtime. The Suns briefly took a 114-112 lead, but the Celtics controlled the third overtime, winning 128-126 as Jo-Jo White scored 33 points. 

Back at the Arizona Veterans' Memorial Coliseum, the Celtics eclipsed the Suns 87-80 to wrap up their 13th NBA Championship. Jo-Jo White was named NBA Finals MVP as Havlicek got his eighth ring. There has been just one triple-overtime game in the NBA Finals since also involving the Phoenix Suns in 1993 against the Chicago Bulls.