He was as classy in defeat as he was dominant in an epic seventh game that brought out his best.
Dominique Wilkins had just scored 47 points -- the seventh-best individual playoff performance by a Celtics opponent. He had 16 tempo-setting points in the fourth quarter that could be overcome only by a performance just a notch greater than his own.
And when it was over, Wilkins saluted both teams, and Larry Bird in particular.
"It was the greatest two-man shootout I've ever been involved in," said Wilkins, in reference to Bird's 20-point answer to Dominique's clutch final quarter.
"This is one of the greatest games that's been played in a long time. Both teams were shooting the lights out, especially in the fourth quarter. It was a great game. Bird hit some big, big shots with guys hanging all over him."
But none bigger, said Wilkins, than Bird's three-pointer from the left corner with 1:43 to play that gave the Celtics a 112-105 lead.
"He hit that three-pointer with my hands dead in his face. What can you do? He just stepped back. He's a hard guy to guard," said Wilkins, whose 19 field goals were three short of the all-time playoff high against the Celtics -- held jointly by Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Michael Jordan.
But every time Bird lifted the home team, it seemed, Wilkins responded. After Bird's three-pointer, Wilkins hit a 14-foot turnaround in traffic and then converted two foul shots to close the gap to 112-109.
"I felt when he scored, I had to come back on the other end and keep our rhythm up, keep the tempo going," said Wilkins. "Our guys were pitching the ball to me off screens and my shots were going in -- jumpers, bankers, top of the key."
Hanging by those 3 points with 26 seconds left, Bird made another play that victimized Wilkins, spinning away for a stumbling lefthanded layup. Atlanta called time, but time was running out.
"What can you say? You play your hardest and you still lose," said Wilkins. "We have nothing to hang our heads about. We couldn't pull it out."
Somebody asked Wilkins if there was anything more he could have done, was there one play he'd like to have made or taken back that could have made the difference?
A judge would have overruled the query as immaterial.
"No, no. Not much," he answered quietly. "I thought I did everything I possibly could do on the offensive end. Defensively I was all over people. He (Larry) hit the big shots. I hit the big shots. It was back and forth.
"I think both teams realize what a great game it was. We were both aggressive, we were running up and down the court. It was a really fun game. But it came down to execution. They did what they had to do to win the game."
And again, he referred to the other force, Bird, and the lefty shot that raised the decibel level at the Garden to its crescendo of the afternoon.
"What can you do? When he gets into a rhythm like that it's hard to stop," said Wilkins. "He had it going. I tried to make it as hard as I could on him. But he was still hitting shots. I did everything I could to push him away from the basket."
But Wilkins refused to label this masterpiece the Dominique-vs.-Larry show. "I didn't think of it as me vs. Bird," he said. "It was the Hawks vs. the Celts and who was executing best down the end would win the game. You have to give them a lot of credit.
"Their starting five was at full tilt the fourth quarter."
When he stepped to the foul line with a second to play and his team needing a miracle to win, Wilkins walked past Kevin McHale and Robert Parish and said two words. "Great game."
It was as if the moment simply eclipsed whatever the result.
"I'm disappointed, but at the same time, I'm not ashamed or mad about how it happened. When you play your best you take it and build on that for next year. We left it all on the court," said Wilkins.
"We said if they were going to win, they were going to have to take it from us because we weren't going to give them anything."
Dominique Wilkins and the Hawks didn't give anything away. Larry Bird and the Celtics had to take it.
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