The Phoenix Suns, those proponents of swimming pool living, the child center and the heartwarming comeback, began last week rooming with the Salvation Army in a Boston hotel and finished it with sunrise services in the desert. Along the way, they stopped playing a bad second fiddle and taught the Boston Celtics a bruising lesson. Where there is even a glimmer of Suns, it seems, there is hope.
Just when it appeared Phoenix was ready to concede the National Basketball Association championship to the Celtics, the Suns tagged Boston with a 105-98 Sunday morning defeat in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum that left Boston suddenly looking less than overwhelming.
Up until then, the Suntans had been playing as if they were afraid of the dark. Boston throttled Phoenix in the first two games in Beantown and threatened to become the second straight club to sweep the NBA finals. When Phoenix returned home for the third game, the welcoming rally staged for them had all the enthusiasm of a wake.
Ah, but these are the Suns, the stuff of which Hans Christian Andersen and Hollywood scripts are made. Phoenix was flat on the floor of the Pacific Division only a few months ago, then rose triumphantly. Compared to what the club had already been through, being down 2-0 to the Celtics was not all that bad. Phoenix newspapers spewed out reams of copy about the machinations and alleged illegal tactics of the Celtics, and the Suns vowed retribution.
June 6, 1976
What happened was that Phoenix reduced Boston's offense to the rushed 20-footer and a quick retreat back on defense. Boston went scoreless for almost the first five minutes of the second quarter and by then had only 17 points and trailed by 16.
A short time later the Suns' Ricky Sobers and the Celtics' Kevin Stacom put some punch into, the game. The rival guards exchanged a flurry of blows that ended with, both being ejected. The flare-up also indicated that the Suns believed they had taken enough from the Celtics. "We can't let them bully us," Sobers said later. "It was rough," added Dick Van Arsdale, "but that's how Boston likes to play. I almost got my head taken off one time."
But Boston is still Boston, a team going for its 13th NBA championship. Despite having everyone but the bus driver in foul trouble, plus an unseemly number of careless turnovers and some miserable shooting, the Celtics struggled up from 23 points down in the third quarter and found themselves back in the game but good, trailing by just two with three minutes to go.
Then Alvan Adams went to work. Adams is the Suns' 21-year-old hardship rookie who skipped his senior year at Oklahoma to torment rival centers with the smoothest style of pivot play since Johnny Kerr. He finished the day with a game-high 33 points, plus 14 rebounds and two assists. But what really drove the Phoenix folks wild was his heroics in the fourth quarter. In a space of 100 seconds Adams did things like score two baskets over two different Celtics, pass through them to give Paul Westphal an easy layin, tip in another Westphal miss and dribble the ball the length of the floor against the Boston press, which on this day was not nearly as effective as local print media. "The newspapers beat us," moaned Boston Coach Tom Heinsohn later. "I didn't know the power of the press was that big. We were lucky to run up and down the floor. That was hometown cooking. That's what that was."
All told, Charlie Scott and Dave Cowens fouled out of the game, Stacom was thrown out for fighting, and Boston incurred two technicals.
Throughout the week the Celtics had assumed the posture that the Suns' dream was about to come to its inevitable end. After the defeat, they still felt the same way. "We're still 2-1," said Cowens with a smirk. "I ain't worried. We'll get 'er. If we don't get 'er today, we'll get 'er tomorrow. That's what my old friend T. E. Doyle used to say back home."
Going into Game 3, the Celtics might have been excused for wondering if their opponents had been left on the doorstep with a note attached. For forwards the Suns had a pair of journeymen in Garfield Heard and Curtis Perry; the back-court consisted of Sobers, a rookie, and Westphal, a substitute with Boston for three years. And their center was a rookie. Although Adams was the league's Rookie of the Year, he didn't impress Cowens too much in the first two games. When asked what it was like facing Adams instead of Cleveland's Nate Thurmond, a Boston semifinal victim, Cowens said, "It was like having a wall removed."
Rookies in the playoff finals are as rare as clean forks in a cheap diner, and here Phoenix was with two of them as starters. The blithe Adams, however, commented that he could see only one difference about the playoffs. "They make the season longer," he said cheerfully.
That they do. "These games are like a bad joke," said Heinsohn. "You keep waiting for the punch line."
Waiting, in fact, has become a major aggravation in the playoffs, so strung out is the schedule because of the demands of television. But for Boston, at least, the gaps apparently had some therapeutic value. Two weeks ago John Havlicek could hardly walk on his sore left foot, but the lengthy intervals between games helped, and he played 40 minutes in the championship opener. He did not have to press. Phoenix shot only 38% from the floor in a game that Boston won 98-87 and was interesting mainly for its lack of passion. Said Boston's Paul Silas, "It felt more like January than May. It didn't seem like a playoff game."
The waiting around hadn't helped Phoenix at all. Left uncorked for a week, all the bubble had gone from the Suns' champagne. They were flat, emotionally spent after magically beating Golden State in the Western Conference finals and then having to wait for seven days until it was Sunday again—like little boys anticipating Christmas.
The Celtics' strategy was apparent: attack the inexperience. Scott was all over Sobers, and even if he kept fouling out of games—seemingly by halftime in the first two—his defense had the rookie thinking more about survival than what play to run. And Boston kept pressuring Adams. If it wasn't Cowens, then it was his backup, Jim Ard, who came into Game 2 and immediately began covering more ground than Chicken Little. "Sometimes he thinks he's Julius Erving," said teammate Jo Jo White.
For weeks, Heinsohn had been pounding on the pipes for more offense, but in Game 2—when they got around to playing it on Thursday night—the Celtics outscored Phoenix 20-2 during one stretch in the third quarter on the way to a 105-90 victory. After that the indelicate started talking "sweep."
Spiritually, the Celtics were in concert again. "This team is like a Swiss watch, a bunch of different parts working together," said White. "When one of our parts, like Havlicek, is out, we can't work." And the Suns were being worn down mentally. Their last win over Boston occurred on Christmas 1974, and they claimed Boston's block-and-tackle defense was one reason for the drought. "Every team cries about the same thing," sniffed White. "Look, if you let a team do all they want to do, they're going to crush you. But stop them, and they get mad."
White was guarding Westphal, his former teammate and a man who came into the series shooting 54% for the playoffs. Their rivalry goes back to the day when White first visited the Celtics' rookie camp to take a look at Westphal, who he figured was after his job. "I know his moves from the knock-down, drag-out practices we had," said White. "I know what bothers him and gets to him. When he gets mad, he wants to take you one-on-one, and that's what I want to get him into, to take them away from their team concept."
Westphal had a tepid opener and came out at the start of Game 2 determined to establish himself. He scored 17 points in the first half, but Phoenix still trailed, and during the third-quarter Boston blitz White stripped him of the ball and was on his way to an easy layup. Frustrated, Westphal tripped him. "He didn't apologize," White said later.
As it developed, one apology was issued. Suns' General Manager Jerry Colangelo gave it to the Phoenix area clergy for any inconvenience, and perhaps diminished collection, caused by the 10:30 a.m. tipoff on Sunday morning.
The apology was accepted. Even the ministers could see that the Suns were in need of redemption. And from somewhere they got it.