The Celtics are still the only Eastern team to win a playoff game on the road. How best to reward them? The NBA knows: For the second round, it's going to send them the Atlanta Hawks, who remember suffering the indignity of a 36-6 playoff quarter among their 12 straight losses at Boston since March 1, 1985.
In their nearly sold-out arena (save the 4,261 empty seats), the Hawks earned the right to go seven with Tyson. They beat the Bucks, 121-111, which equaled Milwaukee's smallest deficit in the second half of this final first-round game. Much was made of Dominique Wilkins (33 points, 10 rebounds, 3 steals), Randy Wittman (season-high 29) and Doc Rivers (15 assists), but Boston fans should take notice: Atlanta forward Kevin Willis (20) had a season-high 3 assists.
Maybe the Hawks are for real.
Seriously, they probably could not have played better, and it started with Dominique, who had spent the previous 1 1/2 days urging the Hawks to play toward June. He promised he would involve his teammates from the opening tap. Then he ran down the opening tap, spun in a 180-degree banker and scored 14 of their first 16 points over the opening 6:53.
"One thing I told them, I said, 'We've got to come out and try to get going early,' " said Wilkins, whose points came on flash-out jumpers, a one-handed jam of a rebound and several other basic Zoids that would have driven Hank Luisetti into the seminary. "That's what I wanted to do."
Leave it said that Wilkins and Larry Bird go by different methods of "involving" teammates, but this one last night was effective. When Dominique sat down with 4:31 in the quarter (he had outscored the Bucks, 14-8, by himself), he was in effect allowing Willis to become the second Hawk to score from the floor, on a dunk 8 1/2 minutes into the game (20-11). And when the Bucks took advantage of Wilkins' absence by shooting ahead, 33-32, on a short burst by Randy Breuer, the Hawks quickly decided to play to their potential.
Willis retrieved the lead with a breakaway dunk that almost split the atom, and then Wittman (13 of 19) began doing things he never does in Boston. He scored. He drove the lane and canned a jumper as the Hawks opened up a touchdown run, and with 6 points he completed his team's 18-9 surge into halftime (59-47).
The Hawks built this up to a 20-point advantage, and they led, 89-70, when a last-gasp lineup of small Bucks led by Jerry Reynolds and the foul-battered Paul Pressey (8 points) scored the first 8 points of the fourth quarter. They threatened all the way in, but could never cut their deficit down to a single figure because Wittman was hitting five larger-than-him jumpers and drawing a charge from Reynolds.
"I didn't realize he had 29, which was good -- he got it in the flow," Rivers said of Wittman. "They were trapping, playing that scrappy defense and Randy was there in the open spots. It's a shooter's dream."
"We can be happy about ourselves," Wittman said. "We just got done playing five games that we played pretty well in the playoffs."
The dangerous Willis ran the open floor like a stunt double in a Schwarzenegger movie, and he went to the line for 8 points. Rivers controlled all of the pieces, which did not include Tree Rollins, who played 15 minutes and scored no points. No matter. This time, Wilkins was everything else they needed. He even requested to guard Terry Cummings in an effort to stop the Bucks' most dangerous force in the two losses at Milwaukee.
For once, the Hawks ran an excellent offense with Wilkins, who fit in securely despite scoring only 9 in the second half.
"This was probably the best thing that could have happened to us, playing a team like Milwaukee," coach Mike Fratello said. "It made us zero in and concentrate defensively like we hadn't in a long time, and it made us pass the ball better (32 assists on 44 field goals) because of the way they play defense."
"If we keep playing consistently, we have a good chance against Boston," Wilkins said. "What we need to do against Boston is get out and run, and play good team defense. We want to take it one game at a time."
Here we're getting into familiar territory. The Hawks will spend the next two days talking about how they can beat the team they never beat, but no one will argue that they've at least earned that right.