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Celtic sub shined brightly as a Sun
by David Friedman / November 20, 2007

Paul Westphal averaged 16.3 ppg in 1970-71 for a USC team that finished 24-2.

“I remember the first game that we played against UCLA that year,” Westphal says. “We were 16-0 and they had just lost at Notre Dame and Austin Carr (who scored 48 points for the Fighting Irish in an 89-82 victory). That was their only loss of the season. It was No. 1 versus No. 2 not only in L.A. but in the country, on national TV. Unfortunately for us, they won that game and then beat us again later in the year. We felt that we had we couldn’t say that we had the best team in the country because we lost to them twice clearly the second best team but we were all dressed up with nowhere to go. We knew the rules going in and if we wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament we should have won one more game.”

USC was not eligible for the NCAA Tournament because each conference could only send one team (after a great Maryland team was similarly excluded in 1974 this rule was finally changed).

The Boston Celtics selected Westphal with the 10th overall pick in the 1972 draft. He joined a powerful team that would go on to win 68 games that season and may very well have won the championship if not for a shoulder injury suffered by John Havlicek during the playoffs. Jo Jo White and Don Chaney received most of the backcourt minutes, which did not leave much time for Westphal, who averaged 4.1 ppg in 8.0 mpg.

In 1973-74, the Celtics enjoyed less regular season success winning 56 games but won their first championship of the post-Bill Russell era. Westphal scored 7.2 ppg in 14.2 mpg. He was one of just seven Celtics who played in all 18 of the team’s playoff games but he logged the fewest minutes by far of those players.

Westphal increased his regular season averages to 9.8 ppg in 19.3 mpg in 1974-75 as the Celtics won 60 games before losing to the Washington Bullets in the Eastern Conference finals. Perhaps he would have eventually become an All-Star in Boston but fate intervened when the Celtics sent Westphal (and a couple draft picks) to the Suns in exchange for All-Star Charlie Scott, a proven veteran who won the 1972 ABA scoring title before jumping to the NBA.

Scott averaged 17.6 ppg for the Celtics, who won 54 games in 1975-76 and made it to the NBA Finals for the second time in three years but Phoenix also profited from the deal because Westphal averaged a team-high 20.5 ppg as The Little Team That Could (to borrow the title of Joe Gilmartin’s book about the 1976 Suns) went 42-40 but made an improbable run to the Finals, defeating the 1975 champion Golden State Warriors along the way a story that we previously examined in The Man Behind Suns Rise.

“It was really special to go back into the Boston Garden and play against my old teammates,” Westphal says. “It was something that I will never forget… I probably was not as intimidated as I would have been going into the Boston Garden in the playoffs for the first time (as an opponent); having been there on the other side I knew a little bit more what to expect.”

The veteran Celtics eventually prevailed in six games. The lasting memory from that series is the epic Game 5, a 128-126 triple overtime victory for Boston. Westphal famously helped Phoenix extend the game by taking advantage of a loophole in the rules. In the second overtime, Phoenix trailed 111-110 with just one second left and no timeouts. Westphal suggested to coach John MacLeod that the Suns call a timeout anyway; the Celtics would be awarded one technical foul free throw but Phoenix could advance the ball to midcourt instead of inbounding from the far baseline. White sank the free throw but Gar Heard made a jumper at the buzzer to send the game into a third extra session.

“Really, I just stole that from John McKay and USC football,” Westphal explains. “They used to call timeouts when they didn’t have any because it was only a five yard penalty and they could stop the clock when they were trying to come back at the end of games. To me, it was just something that translated to another sport. It was what people did when the situation was desperate.”

Anyone who watched Game 5 will never forget Westphal’s unique 360 degree layup, a move that he executed successfully more than once in crucial situations. The 6-4 Westphal had an uncanny ability to improvise ways to get off a shot in a crowd.

“I just played around with all kinds of trick shots in my backyard.” Westphal says. “It wasn’t something that I ever planned on using but if that was the only way to get the shot off and the clock was running down then I would pull something out from deep in my past. It wasn’t really something that was planned. I think that experimentation is probably good. You never plan on going in and doing something like a 360 but the more body control you can have, if it comes out at the right time it might bail you out sometime. Dirk Nowitzki does that all the time; he practices wrong-footed shots and off balance shots. Pete Maravich used the same principle with all his ballhandling drills all kinds of things that you would never do in a game but they do give you more confidence and can pull you out of a jam once in a while.”

Westphal emerged not only as an All-Star but also as a 1st Team All-NBA player in 1976-77, averaging 21.3 ppg (17th in the NBA) and 5.7 apg (ninth in the NBA). He made the All-Star team each of the next four seasons and earned three more All-NBA selections (2nd Team in 1977-78, 1st Team in 1978-79 and 1979-80). The one-time seventh man of the Celtics was now one of the very best players in the entire league. He and 1978 Rookie of the Year Walter Davis formed one of the top duos in the NBA in the late 1970s.

“Walter Davis was one of the greatest shooters of all-time,” Westphal says. “His shot was perfect. Whenever Walter hit the rim or missed, usually Coach MacLeod would take him out because he figured he must be tired.”

In 1978, Westphal ranked sixth in the NBA in scoring (25.2 ppg) and tenth in assists (5.5 apg), while Davis finished ninth in scoring (24.2 ppg). They were the second highest scoring tandem in the league, finishing just behind Pete Maravich (27.0 ppg) and his New Orleans Jazz teammate Truck Robinson (22.7 ppg) but what Westphal and Davis accomplished is more impressive when you consider three things: they played in 80 and 81 games respectively (Maravich missed 32 games due to injury, which provided more scoring opportunities for Robinson), they shot .516 and .526 from the field respectively (Maravich and Robinson each shot .444 from the field) and they only averaged about 31 mpg each while Maravich and Robinson each averaged more than 40 mpg. On a per minute basis, Westphal outscored George Gervin, who won the first of his four scoring titles.

Westphal does not lament the lost opportunity to possibly duel Gervin for the scoring crown.

“I could do the math and realize that it was pretty unusual to score that many points in so few minutes,” Westphal says. “My whole career I was never motivated by trying to see how many points I could score. The whole thing was to try to do whatever you could to help your team win. A record that is achieved for the sake of setting a record doesn’t mean that much anyway. So to just rack up points or play in the last minutes when the game is decided doesn’t have that much meaning, really. I certainly wouldn’t have minded playing more and I think that Walter felt the same way but the coach decided that he was going to parcel out the minutes that way, to have the bench play a third of the game and the starters play two thirds of the game.”

The Suns were a perennial contender during those years but they never made it back to the NBA Finals.

“One reason would be Bill Walton and another reason would be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/Magic Johnson,” Westphal says. “The other teams got better. I think that the present is always where it’s at in the NBA. We had a good young team and we were knocking on the door those other years but sometimes it’s an injury, sometimes another team gets loaded up, sometimes you just don’t perform as well. Whatever it is, you can never take success for granted.”

In 1979 and 1980 the Suns lost in the playoffs to the eventual NBA champions.

After the 1979-80 season, the Suns traded Westphal to Seattle for Dennis Johnson, the 1979 Finals MVP and one of the top defensive guards in the NBA. Westphal got off to a good start in Seattle, earning his fifth (and final) All-Star selection before a broken foot ended his season. In 1982, he signed with the New York Knicks as a veteran free agent. Westphal won the Comeback Player of the Year award after the 1982-83 season, but he never completely regained his old form. Westphal spent the final season of his career, 1983-84, as a reserve for the Suns. While his glory days as a Phoenix player were long gone, he would again become the toast of the town just a few years later.

“I always wanted to coach,” Westphal says. “I went to college and figured that after I graduated I’d be a high school coach someplace. Since I was able to keep playing, I just postponed that but I always wanted to coach.”

John MacLeod set a good example for Westphal to follow.

“I think that John Macleod was an excellent NBA coach,” Westphal says. “He had longevity in Phoenix especially and he coached a few other stops as well, mainly because of his professionalism. He loved the game and he loved to see the game played right. I think that more than anything John’s consistency and his professionalism are things that anybody should try to emulate.”

Westphal spent three seasons as an assistant coach at the collegiate level and four seasons as a Suns’ assistant before being hired as the team’s head coach prior to the 1992-93 season. That was the year that the Suns acquired Charles Barkley in a blockbuster trade with Philadelphia. Barkley stormed to the 1993 MVP while leading the Suns to the best record in the league, 62-20. The Suns made it to the Finals for the first time since Westphal and company lost to the Celtics in 1976 but they fell in six games to the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls. Westphal guided the Suns to the conference semifinals in 1994 and 1995 but was replaced in 1996 after the Suns dropped to fifth place in the Pacific Division.

Westphal later became the coach of another of his former teams, Seattle. He led the Sonics to a 25-25 record in the lockout-shortened 1999 season and to a playoff appearance in 2000 before being replaced early in the 2000-01 season. After that, he spent four seasons as the head coach at Pepperdine, compiling a 69-52 record. Prior to this season, Westphal joined Avery Johnson’s Dallas Mavericks coaching staff.

David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com

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