These Bucks and Suns don’t have to run through Celtics this time

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For years, this was how you made your bones in the NBA: you threw your money on the table and you challenged the Boston Celtics to a duel. For years, that was the gauntlet teams had to endure to prove themselves worthy. Stare the leprechaun in the eye, see what happens.

The 76ers in the ’60s (and again in the ’80s) had to do that on the way to winning a championship. The sainted Knicks teams had to do it. The Lakers had won plenty of titles, but it wasn’t until they beat the Celtics at the Boston Garden, Game 6 in 1985, that they were allowed to stand toe-for-toe and banner-for-banner. The Pistons, a few years later, needed to climb the same Bunker Hill.

Sometimes, you didn’t even need to win a series to gain respect. Sometimes it took co-starring in an epic NBA Finals game to get there. Both participants in this year’s Finals — the Bucks and the Suns — did that, within two years of each other more than 45 years ago. They played games that folks who were there still talk about.

“That,” the great Pat Summerall told the Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan one afternoon in May 1974, “was the single-greatest game I’ve ever seen in person.”

Summerall was speaking a day after calling for CBS Game 6 of the ’74 Finals at the Garden, a double-overtime epic won by Milwaukee, 102-101. It should be noted that by that point Summerall had actually played in the game that, by unanimous declaration, had been christened “The Greatest Football Game of All Time,” the 1958 NFL title game between his Giants and the Baltimore Colts. And that was two weeks after he’d booted a 49-yard field goal in the snow to tie the Browns and force a one-game playoff.

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar #33 of the Milwaukee Bucks handles the ball against the Boston Celtics
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Bucks Couldn’t Get Past The Celtics In 1974.
Getty Images

Nobody would argue. On a sweaty Friday night in Milwaukee, three Hall of Famers — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and John Havlicek — played all 58 minutes, and a fourth, Dave Cowens, only missed 11 minutes because of foul trouble. And they were all glorious in a pressure-packed game.

What might’ve been the signature moment of Cowens’ career came late in regulation when he tipped a ball away, dove on it, and forced a 24-second violation. Robertson made two critical baskets in the overtimes. Havlicek finished with a game-high 36, and with seven seconds to go hit a high-arching shot over Kareem’s fingertips that gave the Celtics a one-point lead and put them on the perch of closing out the series.

And then Jabbar made one of the most famous baskets of his life, a 15-foot skyhook with three seconds to go that nearly destroyed the Celtics’ Paul Silas.

“I was waiting for the rebound,” Silas said afterward, “and there was no rebound. And I thought my heart would sink out of my chest.”

And yet, great as that game was, two years later the Celtics and Suns managed to top it in Game 5, also at the Garden. The series was tied 2-2 and the Celtics took an early 22-point lead, but the Suns fought back time and again, forcing OT and then a second one where one of the most amazing end-game sequences ever transpired.

Havlicek (of course) made a clutch bank shot with two seconds left to put the Celtics up 111-110. The Suns, out of timeouts, looked sunk. Except Suns star Paul Westphal (who’d played for the Celtics in that ’74 Bucks series) called one anyway. The rules at the time penalized the Suns a technical foul (which JoJo White hit) but allowed them to still use the timeout and get the ball at half-court. Gar Heard then drained a 35-footer at the buzzer to force a third overtime.

John Havlicek #17 of the Boston Celtics shoots the ball against the Phoenix Suns during the 1976 NBA Finals circa 1976 at the Boston Garden.
John Havlicek’s Bank Shot In The Final Seconds Paved The Way For A Celtics Win — And A Crushing Suns Loss.
Getty Images

“That was maybe the most heads-up thing I’ve ever seen on a basketball court in my life,” Havlicek marveled later, speaking of his ex-mate Westphal’s in-the-moment understanding of what needed to be done. “It was just an incredibly smart play.”

OK. So the Bucks and Suns covered themselves in glory in the two games that stand 1 and 1A among the greatest games in NBA Finals history.

Here’s the flip side: both stories ended badly, which is why the Suns still search for their first title, and why the Bucks were trying for their first in 50 years Tuesday night. The Celtics somehow recovered to win in triple-OT in Game 5 in ’76, then closed out the Suns in Phoenix two nights later. Similarly, two days after Kareem’s forever skyhook, Boston went into Milwaukee Arena and won Game 7 from the Bucks in Robertson’s final game as a pro.

You could earn your bones and make your stripes against the Celtics. But even then you weren’t guaranteed to take a trophy home with you.

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