The Suns’ Finals Appearance 45 Years Ago Produced an Epic Triple-Overtime Battle in the ‘Greatest Game Ever’

The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns are facing off in one of the most unique NBA Finals in decades. While some teams like the Toronto Raptors and Dallas Mavericks hoisted the trophy in recent years, the Bucks and Suns have a chance to do something special. They might be able to one-up the magic of the 1976 NBA Finals when the Suns lost to the Boston Celtics in a triple-overtime thriller. Some basketball fans still call it the “greatest game ever.”

The Suns vs. Celtics in the 1976 NBA Finals

Phoenix Suns guard Paul Westphal defends against an inbounds pass in 1976
Paul Westphal of the Phoenix Suns in 1976 | Mark Junge/Getty Images

A look at the series via Basketball-Reference notes that the Suns were just a 42-40 young franchise when they made a Cinderella run to their first NBA Finals. Thanks to young superstar Paul Westphal and his even younger teammate Alvan Adams, the team sat in a prime position to get their first ring. Entering game five tied with a Celtics team still coming off its decade-plus run of dominance, the team proved it didn’t need Bill Russell to keep the greatness going.

Despite Russell’s departure, Phoenix fought the Celtics to a 2-2 series after the first four games. The team had plenty of pieces to throw at Boston, from Jo Jo White and John Havlicek to Dave Cowens and Charlie Scott. Notably, Scott, a guard, was traded to the Celtics from Phoenix earlier that year. 

The first four games were a mixed bag of blowouts, nail biters, and good competitions. However, by the end of game five, NBA fans experienced what is still heralded as the greatest game ever played.

‘The greatest game ever played’

Bright Side of the Sun ran down the brutal, exciting, heartbreaking, and historic matchup in 2014. While the game was a nail-biter from the get-go, the last 20 minutes of action secured its place in the history books.

The game started as a potential blowout, with the Suns going down 36-18 after just one quarter. However, as they had all postseason, they did not go down silently. The team fought hard to get back into the game. After tying it up, all they had to do was defend. In a tie game, they tipped an inbound pass to essentially send the game to overtime. However, Celtics player Paul Silas called a timeout that the Celtics did not have.

The referees ignored the timeout, but many believe the Suns should have gotten the obligatory free throw to seal it. Unfortunately for Phoenix, they didn’t. The game went into overtime. The teams exchanged baskets in the first overtime, but neither made any leeway. It went to overtime No. 2, where Westphal put the Suns up with five seconds left after the team trailed by three just seconds earlier. 

Havlicek responded with his jumper, and the crowd stormed the court. There was just one problem. Time was still on the clock. After clearing the court, the Suns received another chance. They gave the ball to Tim McLeod, who effortlessly silenced the garden with a game-tying jumper over Don Nelson. 

The Phoenix Suns go out defeated, but they have another chance

The commotion subsided, and the Celtics responded by winning the third overtime less. However, as the late Celtics coach Tom Heinsohn later said, the victory gave his beloved men in green what they needed to win game six.

“We knew the first team that could bend over and ties their sneakers for the sixth game was going to win. And we did. Good thing. If there had been a seventh game, we might have had to play with our sneakers untied,” he told

From the false endings to clutch shots, the game remains an all-time great. However, the Suns remain ringless. Despite requiring another Cinderella run after acquiring future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, nothing will come easy.

The Suns’ history is filled with what-ifs. Had Charles Barkley’s teams had another star, maybe they would’ve beat the Chicago Bulls. If injuries, strange suspensions, and several strokes of bad luck hadn’t marred Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire’s years, they may have had even more. Now, it doesn’t matter. 

Whether this strange matchup results from poor NBA season-planning or the Suns and Bucks will prove their worth for years to come, the Suns can finally add some jewelry and a trophy if they play these finals correctly. If Phoenix capitalizes on its early lead, they’ll finally get the ring they so desperately wanted since that fateful game in 1976.

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