1988 NBA Playoffs: Game 7 a Simple Battle of Mano-a-Mano


Well, hey, it wasn't a bad game if you're into watching athletic legends-to-be engaging in one-on-one personal combat, or if your idea of a nice seventh game is when the teams shoot a combined 59 percent, turn it over a scant 15 times and just generally have the raucous Garden fans alternately jumping out of their seats and clutching the religious objects of their choice.

If there is a better brand of basketball on display somewhere, it certainly isn't on this planet. The Atlanta Hawks were magnificent in the biggest game this particular group has ever played. And they'd be the ones moving on to play Detroit for the Eastern Conference championship this week were it not for the collective team class of the Boston Celtics and the virtuoso skill level of Larry Bird, who compressed 20 of his 34 points -- on 9-for-10 shooting -- into the fourth quarter as the Celtics squeezed out an exhausting 118-116 triumph before 14,890 enraptured fans yesterday afternoon.

Split off the glorious whole was a spectacular fourth-quarter subplot: Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins. The Hawks' star threw in 15 of his frightening 47 in the final period, and there were times when there appeared to be nothing else going on. It was Larry and 'Nique, Larry and 'Nique, and it was chilling.

"They each put their team on their back and said, 'Let's go,' " said Hawks coach Mike Fratello.

Boston never trailed in the fourth quarter, but the Celtics couldn't create any daylight over the resilient Hawks until a jumper in the lane by Bird, two free throws by the inspired Kevin McHale (33 points, 13 rebounds, 4 blocks) and a typically nerveless three-pointer (considering the context) from the left wing by Bird left the Celtics ahead by a 112-105 count with 1:43 remaining.

Appropriately, the Hawks battled back. Wilkins hit a sensational jump hook over three men in the lane (112-107) and then worked his way back to the foul line for two more (112-109, 47 seconds to go). The right side was cleared for Bird, who backed 'Nique in and then made a running lefty drive with 26 seconds remaining (114-109).

The relentless Wilkins followed up his own missed dunk attempt (114-111), whereupon Doc Rivers goaltended a Danny Ainge sneakaway drive. It was 116-111 with 17 seconds left, and it still wasn't over. Before it finally did end, Rivers would make two foul shots (:11), Dennis Johnson would make one of two at both the 10- and 5-second marks, Tree Rollins would sink a lefty jump hook and, with one second left, Ainge would grab Wilkins at midcourt, sending him to the line trailing by 3 (118-115), needing, obviously, to make the first, miss the second and have something positive happen with the rebound.

He did make the first. The second bounded off harmlessly to the left side. Robert Parish directed it to DJ, and a memorable game and significant series were both over. The Celtics had increased their all-time Garden Game 7 record to 15-2, but not before Atlanta had come eerily close to knocking them out of the playoff hunt.

Game 6 had been a legitimate playoff war, but Game 7 was majestic. Atlanta was the aggressor from the tap, emerging from the first period with a 30-28 lead and the needed confidence that it could win another game here.

The crucial juncture of the first half came at the 5 1/2-minute mark. The Hawks, who had twice led by 6 (36-30, 40-34), were still in control at 42-39. Bird to that point was struggling (a 2-for-7 first quarter), and the only consistent source of offense for Boston had been McHale. Good defense was keeping Boston in the game against an Atlanta team that was benefiting not only from the jump shooting of Wilkins, but also the slashing drives, steely jumpers and clever feeds of Rivers (16 points, 18 assists) and the marksmanship of the heretofore-silent Randy Wittman, who would finish the game with 22 points on 11-for-13 shooting, all from the outside.

A shovel tap off the heel of his hand by McHale started the Celtics on a roll that carried them to a 59-58 halftime lead. The initial go-ahead basket at 45-44 came on a right-baseline post-up jumper by -- are you ready? -- Reggie Lewis, who would later make a nice jumper in the middle of the lane. The first Reggie hoop was the beginning of a torrid exchange featuring nine lead changes in a little over four minutes.

A brief third-quarter Boston spurt created a 67-60 lead, but that served only to ignite the Hawks, who closed quickly to 67-64. Boston needed a momentum-buster somewhere, and up stepped Dennis Johnson, who drilled three consecutive open jumpers. Even though an Atlanta countersurge briefly regained the lead (77-76), the seed had been planted that it would not be wise to leave DJ alone any longer. Take note, incidentally, that in this certified Big Game DJ did all of his scoring in the second half.

He also made a vital steal late in the period. It was 82-all and the Hawks were holding for one shot when DJ poke-checked the ball from Rivers and sailed in to give Boston a 2-point lead going into the fourth quarter.

Bird had been bothered again by Wilkins' tough defense, plus the usual quota of double-teams. He also had missed some open first-quarter jumpers, and entering the fourth quarter the question was, when, if ever, was Larry going to act like Larry?

He jump-started with a jumper off a pick to make it 88-86. He followed that up with a moon shot from the right (90-88). "They weren't double-teaming me as much," he said, "because of DJ. If he hits that shot, it opens it up for everybody. After you hit a couple, it gets easier."

A falling-down, driving, lefty, banked three-point drive ("a lucky shot" -- Bird) was next (93-90). That was immediately answered by a Wilkins set shot three-pointer, and the Great Shootout was on. The highlight was a dramatic stretch of 99 seconds when it went: Wilkins deep left corner, Bird lefthanded jumper in the lane, Wilkins stop-and-popper, Bird 20-footer from the right and Wilkins tough banker, the last shot tying the game at 103 (4:38 left).

But if 'Nique could have one shot back, it would surely be the forced effort in the lane he took following a Bird bucket that broke the 105 tie. But since he had made about 12 equally improbable shots already, it's difficult to knock him for missing one.

The thing is, aside from one deep-down in-and-out, Bird wasn't missing anything. And he even atoned for that by promptly stealing an entry pass, heading downcourt and making a jumper. Bird finished it, all right, but in order to win this one the Fab Five all had to reach back for that Something Extra against a younger, deeper team that has matured considerably in the last 10 days. K.C. Jones substituted only once (a brief Fred Roberts for McHale) in the second half in his desperate attempt to put down the youthful insurrection and prolong his own coaching career.

No one, but no one, ever dreamed the Celtics would need seven games to subdue a club they had always believed was essentially mindless and simply not on their level.

"It took everything we had to beat them," acknowledged Bird.

One look in his tired eyes answered any questions concerning the sincerity of that appraisal.

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