While well-known for his years coaching the Suns in the 1990s, decades before Paul Westphal was an elite guard playing for some successful Phoenix teams in the 1970s. Joining the league in 1972, Westphal played three seasons with the Boston Celtics, winning a title with them in 1974.
In 1975, he was traded to the Suns in a package for Charlie Scott. A role player with the Celtics, Westphal blossomed with the Suns, increasing his scoring by 10.7 points per game in his first year in the desert. Two years later, he posted a career-best 25.2 points per game.
The defining moment of that era of Phoenix basketball was the run to the 1976 NBA Finals, where Westphal and the Suns faced off against his former team in Boston. Game 5 of that series was a triple-overtime affair often called “the greatest game ever played” for its level of play and heightened stakes.
Westphal was crucial in that contest, hitting the and-1 to tie the game in the final seconds of regulation. He also stole the ball from John Havlicek to put the Suns in position to win during the second overtime.
After another Havlicek basket and just two seconds remaining, Westphal craftily took advantage of the rules and called a timeout the team did not have. They were assessed a technical foul, which the Celtics hit to go up by two points.
However, the Suns were now allowed to inbound into the frontcourt, setting up Gar Heard’s famous game-tying shot to send the game to triple overtime. While the Suns ultimately lost the game and the series, Westphal established himself as one of the league’s great players.
In total, Westphal played five seasons with the Suns in the prime of his career. He made four NBA All-Star squads and a similar four All-NBA teams, including three First Team nods. He put up at least 9.6 win shares in five straight seasons for the Suns, the picture of a consistently great star.
After playing a few seasons with the then-Seattle SuperSonics and the New York Knicks, Westphal returned to Phoenix in 1983 for his final NBA season before retiring. He will be best remembered for leading the Suns as close to a title as they would come until the 1990s.