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It’s been labeled “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” The Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns squared off in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals on June 4, 1976. The series was tied, and the Boston Garden was rocking. The spectators had no idea they were in for a treat.

Game 5 had everything — drama, quick thinking, and unsung heroes. It went three overtimes, and the Celtics may have gotten away with something in the first one. When it was all said and done, the Celtics escaped with a 128-126 victory, setting the stage for their 13th NBA championship.

In honor of the Boston Celtics’ 17 championships, we’re highlighting 17 signature moments, both good and bad, that took the Celtics from a woeful 22-38 debut in 1946-47 to the current iteration of the longtime powerhouse franchise that’s now coming off an NBA Finals appearance. The 17-part series on the Celtics’ championship history will run through the summer and take us to the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season, one Boston hopes ends with Banner No. 18.

The Boston Celtics got a gift in the first overtime

Fans reach out for Boston Celtics player Dave Cowens as the team arrives at Logan Airport in Boston from Phoenix after defeating the Phoenix Suns to win the 1976 NBA Championship on June 7, 1976. | Don Preston/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

What’s interesting about Game 5 is how a couple of timeouts played key roles in getting the game to a third overtime.

After one quarter, the thought of the game going into overtime, never mind three, was non-existent. The Celtics dominated early, leading 36-18 after the first 12 minutes. Phoenix bounced back from a 61-45 halftime deficit by outscoring the hosts 50-34 in the second half to send the game into overtime.

Points were tough to come by in the first OT. With the game tied 101-101 and three seconds remaining, Boston’s Paul Silas called for a timeout. The problem was the Celtics didn’t have any left. The problem for the Suns was that referee Richie Powers didn’t see Silas’ signal.

“I tried to call one and Richie Powers didn’t see me or didn’t want to see me,” Silas said in 2001, per SB Nation. “He didn’t acknowledge it. I know they feel if he had, it would have been a different ending. Bottom line is that he didn’t, and we got another ring.”

“Silas called a timeout, and they ignored it.”

Former Boston Celtics player Glenn McDonald, to Sportscasting

Had the timeout been acknowledged, the Celtics would have been slapped with a technical foul, and the Suns could have iced the game with a free throw. Instead, the game went to a second OT, where another timeout stole the spotlight.

With five seconds left in the second overtime, the Suns took a one-point lead. Boston’s John Havlicek then took the inbounds pass from halfcourt, dribbled three times, and banked in a leaner that seemingly gave the Celtics the win. With one second remaining, Phoenix’s Paul Westphal then outsmarted everyone by calling a timeout they didn’t have, resulting in a technical foul.

The Celtics made the free throw, but back then teams didn’t get the ball back after a tech. Now the Suns had the ball down two, but instead of having to go the length of the court, they inbounded the ball from midcourt. Garfield Heard’s catch-and-shoot went in, sending it to a third overtime.

Boston’s Glenn McDonald came up big in the third overtime


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Silas fouled out two minutes into the third overtime, the fourth Celtics player to foul out of the game. That’s when the seldom-used McDonald heard his name called by Celtics coach Tommy Heinsohn. McDonald told Sportscasting that he believed Heinsohn would turn to 6-foot-8 power forward/center Steve Kuberski.

“When Paul fouled out, I didn’t think I was going in,” McDonald said. “I looked at Steve and said, ‘Paul fouled out. Get ready.’”

Instead, Heinsohn called for McDonald.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Run ’em, Mac. Run ’em,’” McDonald said. “I was extremely fast, and I love to get out on the fast break. I played a little at the end of the first half, but after halftime, I didn’t touch the floor.”

McDonald scored eight points in the game, six in the final 1:35, as the Celtics outscored the Suns 16-14 to pull out an exhausting 128-126 victory. The Celtics went on to clinch the series in Game 6.

“Dave Cowens always tells me that if not for you, we might not have been champions,” McDonald said. “He tells me you don’t realize what you did.”

Jo Jo White played 60 minutes for the Celtics and led the way with 33 points. Cowens had 26 points and 19 rebounds. Heard played 61 minutes and had 17 points. Westphal and Ricky Sobers led the Suns’ scoring with 25 points apiece.

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