Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fortunate Moments for Unfortunate Franchises: The Phoenix Suns and Saint Westphal

Rule no. 5, Section VI, j. Requests for a timeout in excess of the authorized number of combined regular and 20-second timeouts shall be granted and a technical foul shall be assessed. Following the timeout, the ball will be awarded to the opposing team and play shall resume with a throw-in nearest the spot where play was interrupted.

1976 NBA Finals, Game 5

Fact #1: With a few seconds left in regulation, the Celtics' Paul Silas tried calling a timeout. Boston did not have a timeout, and if referee Richie Powers had granted the timeout that he saw Silas attempting to call, Phoenix would have gotten a technical free throw. Richie Powers did not grant the timeout.

Fact #2: Game 5 was the first-ever triple overtime finals game, and only the second-ever triple overtime playoff game.

Fact #3: The Suns out-rebounded the Celtics 62 to 28, yet the Celtics attempted 116 field goals to the Suns 112. I'm not even sure how that is mathematically possible. Equally astounding, in a triple overtime game in which three players played 55+ minutes, the Celtics leading rebounder grabbed five boards.

In any other game one of these facts would be the lead story. Game 5 was not any other game.


Even getting to the Finals was accomplishment enough. The Suns only started playing in 1968, and had made the playoffs once before the 1975-76 season. They backed into the 1976 playoffs with a 42-40 record, but somehow beat the Seattle Sonics in the Western Conference Semifinals. Their run should have ended in the Western Conference Finals when they played against the Warriors, the previous seasons champion and holder of the best regular season record. Led by a balanced scoring attack (six players averaged between 13 and 19 points per game for the series) the Suns defeated the Warriors in Game 7, winning the right to face the Boston Celtics.

If it wasn't clear to the Celtics that the Suns were a team to fear, it was apparent by Game 5. After losing the first two games of the series in the Boston Garden, the Suns evened the series at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. They returned to the Garden and gave the Celtics all that they could.

June 4, 1976 at Boston Garden

Paul Westphal has had many great days on the basketball court. He has spent 40 year in basketball, winning an NBA Championship as a player, coaching a team to the NBA Finals, and is a nominee for the Basketball Hall of Fame. His greatest game ever, however, has to be Game 5.

Play #1: With less than a minute left in regulation, Westphal stole the ball from Jo Jo White, was fouled as he made the ensuing layup, and hit his free throw to tie the game.

Play #2: With 15 seconds left in the 2nd overtime and the Suns trailing by one, Westphal stole the ball from John Havlicek (he of Havlicek stole the ball fame), and his teammate Curtis Perry hit a shot to put the Suns up one.

Here's where things got crazy. There were six seconds left, and Havlicek used five of them to set-up and hit an eight-foot bank shot. The buzzer sounded and Celtics fans, thinking they had won, rushed the court. Referee Richie Powers insisted that one second be put back on the clock, and was assaulted by a fan for his trouble. Fans were cleared from the court, though they still ringed it menacingly.

With one second left, and in-bounding from under their own basket, the Suns had nary a prayer of winning. So Westphal called a timeout. A timeout the Suns didn't have, and so he was given a technical foul. But in 1976 the rule governing excess timeouts was different than Rule no. 5, Section VI, J cited up above. (They would change the rule the next year, much to the chagrin of a young Chris Webber) The Celtics were given a free throw (that Jo Jo White sunk) before the Suns were granted their timeout. While Suns coach Jack MacLeod was diagramming a last second play, Celtics fans freely ran in and out of the huddle.

So why'd Westphal call a timeout that he knew he didn't have? Because he knew (who knows how...what current NBA player has read the rulebook and knows how excess timeouts are handled?) that after the technical free throw, the Suns would get to inbounds from half court. Westphal figured that it was better to inbounds from half court down two than to inbounds from under your own basket down one.

We can't say for sure what would have happened had Westphal not called the timeout, but likely he would've lobbed the ball down court, where his team would fail to get a shot off. We do know what happened because of his timeout call: Garfield Heard (great name) hit a jumper from the top of the key to tie the game. The Suns couldn't win the game, as the three-point line wouldn't be adopted for another three seasons.

The Aftermath

Paul Westphal continued his heroics in the third overtime, making two baskets with less than thirty seconds left and nearly getting another steal before the Suns lost 128-126. They would lose Game 6 two days later.

17 years later Westphal would lead the Suns to their only other NBA Finals appearance, riding the Round Mound of Rebound to a six game loss to the Chicago Bulls. They would never come as close to winning an NBA Championship as they did in Game 5 of the 1976 Finals.

Editor's Note: Below is a video of the least-exciting announcer in NBA history narrating the most exciting game in NBA history. Apparently Gus Johnson was only eight at the time, but I still would've rather he called the game.

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