Grampa Celtic: Bird v. 'Nique

Whatever happens when the Celtics entertain the Atlanta Hawks at the Garden tonight, we know this much: It will not be reminding us of what took place on the afternoon of May 22, 1988, when Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins strapped six-guns to their hips and came out blazing.

"Greatest quarter I ever saw in 42 years in the NBA," gushed no less an authority than Arnold J. (Red) Auerbach.

Maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't, but it's surely among 'em. The teams combined to shoot 59 percent in the game and a dazzling 72 percent from the floor in that fourth period, during which the Hawks missed seven shots and the Celtics missed just three.

Wilkins was magnificent. His 16 points felt, and looked, like 116. He was at his spinning, menacing, gravity-defying best. He would finish a clutch seventh-game performance with 47 points. On the road.

And he would lose.

As good as Dominique was, Larry was better. Mr. Bird shot 9 for 10 in that fourth quarter -- the one miss of the extreme in-and-out variety -- and his 20 points propelled the Celtics to a 118-116 victory and a date in the Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons.

Coming pre-heel surgery and pre-back surgery, it was one of the last truly great Bird virtuoso performances. It was the Bird of legend. "Larry had that look in his eye," declared Kevin McHale (typically brilliant with 33 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocks). "The one that says, 'Get the hell out of my way, boys. I'm going to go to work.' "

Superlatives flew in every direction after that game. Wilkins regards it as a career memory highlight. Everybody has it on his or her short list of cherished Bird memories. Everybody, that is, except Larry Bird, who played it, filed it away and has never watched it on tape.

"It was decent," he says of the overall team performance, "but it wasn't a typical seventh game that we were used to. I don't think we got out there and challenged every shot. Seems to me we weren't really in sync. I thought we were pretty sluggish."

The fact that the teams combined for a scant 15 turnovers? "We weren't trying to do anything," Bird submits. "Our ball movement wasn't that great."

Keep in mind that we are being lectured by the World's Hardest Marker here. Bird saves his fondest memories for clashes with the Lakers and 76ers, and he remains irked by the thought that there never should have been a Game 7, since the Celtics lost Game 5 at home and had to squeak out a 2-point road victory in Game 6 to prolong the series. And having arrived at Game 7, he didn't really expect any problems with Atlanta.

"We had no doubt we'd beat them if we played defense," Bird says. "This was the same team we had blown out in the playoffs two years before." True enough. All five Atlanta starters were back from the team the Celtics abused for a 36-6 third period in the deciding Game 5 back in '86.

But Atlanta came out ready to play in Game 7, and had it not been for McHale's heroics, the Celtics wouldn't have entered the final period leading by an 84-82 score.

Bird had not had a great Bird series after a superb Game 1, in which he scored 24 of his 38 points in the first quarter. In Game 7, he had a quiet 15 points entering the fourth quarter. Wilkins had more than doubled that (31) in his only good shooting game in Boston all season.

This was 28-year-old Dominique Wilkins at his physical peak, which means that the only more dangerous offensive force in the game at that time was Michael Jordan himself. 'Nique had averaged 30.7 points a game in the regular season, second only to Jordan, and his 25 shots a game were the most in the NBA. Back in Game 3, he had squeezed off nine shots in the first five minutes.

"Dominique was tough because he was so good at that spin move, it was difficult to double-team him when he put it on the floor," Bird says. "He had the green light, of course, so you knew he would get his shots. You knew he'd go to the free throw line a lot. And if he got into the middle, he could jump over anybody."

He also had improved as a defender, and took particular pride in checking Bird. "By this time, he would fight through picks, which he didn't do earlier in his career," Bird points out. "He was sort of like Dr. J, playing that nuisance-type defense, with his hands moving, slapping at the ball and going for steals. He had learned how to use his quickness on defense much better."

Dominique recalls it as a true summit meeting. "It wasn't so much what the outcome was, it was more that it was two guys who wanted to win and wanted to win badly," he says. "When you have two great players like that going at it, it brings out the best in both of them. It was probably the best game I've ever played in. I've had games that I scored more points, but that was probably the best one. And it was one of the best I've ever seen. It was an all-out war. And it wasn't just me and Bird. It was everybody. That's what a playoff atmosphere is all about. Bird brought out the best in me throughout my career. You always had to be thinking when he was out there, because if you weren't, he'd embarrass you. He's a tough cookie."

Bird didn't think the crowd had been up to his standards, so he was interested in getting their attention as the fourth period began. "I started off the fourth period trying to make things happen and get us a lift," he explains. "I just got it going. I kept shooting. And I kept hitting."

His first basket came at 10:03 when he got a Robert Parish pick and hit what amounted to a glorified free throw. Thank you, thank you, he remembers thinking. An easy basket.

"I hadn't been shooting that well," he explains. "But I always tried to break games down quarter by quarter. No matter if you shot 14 for 15 the night before, the next game is something entirely different, and you don't know what's going to happen. If I was going bad, I tried to think in terms of quarters to keep my confidence up. I'd say to myself, 'So what? You didn't have a good quarter. So this is the quarter.'

"The second thing is, if I missed three or four in a row, I'd always try to tell myself, 'Try to get an easy one.' It doesn't matter what: layup, put-back, anything.' Then I'd say to myself, 'Now you've got it.' The whole thing with pro sports is confidence. I always tried to fire myself up."

Wilkins was already fired up. Larry was trying to match his distinguished rival. Bird nailed a patented rainbow swisher for field goal No. 2, and then he got a gift from the gods.

The score was tied at 90 when Larry started a right-to-left perambulation. As he started to the hoop, he was tripped. The whistle blew, and Bird knew he was going to the foul line. He threw the ball up off the glass, just for the heck of it. Bank. Swish. A 3-point play.

"When you shoot the ball 20,000 times, there are bound to be some lucky ones," Bird suggests. "That's one I didn't think had a chance to go in. But I'll say this: I never took my eye off the rim."

The lead lasted exactly 17 seconds, or as long as it took 'Nique to deposit a Bird-like 3-point set shot from the left wing. The Great Shootout was on.

When people think of this game, what most of them dwell on is an extraordinary sequence of 2 minutes 23 seconds in which two men owned that 94 x 50-foot slice of hardwood and the other eight were essentially superfluous. It began at 5:57 when Wilkins tied the game at 99 with a deep left corner jumper.

And then:

5:42 -- Bird, left-handed jumper (absolutely not necessary to go southpaw, unless you're Larry Bird and the whim strikes) in the lane.

5:25 -- Wilkins stutter-steps on McHale.

5:06 -- Bird, 17-footer from the left.

4:38 -- Wilkins banks one in high off the glass from the right.

3:34 -- Bird, in serious rush-hour middle-of-the-lane traffic, hits jumper on a broken pick-and-roll.

"Two gunfighters waiting to blink," marveled McHale.

What Bird remembers most about all this is that he had perfect balance. "When I had my legs under me and had good balance, I could shoot," he says. "My great shooting games came when I had great footwork and good balance. I could get tripped up, but if you threw the ball to me, and I had good balance, I could make the shot."

Bird had one great advantage in this encounter with Dominique. Whereas Dominique was stuck with guarding him, he had the pleasure of guarding (or not guarding) Tree Rollins, or whoever was deemed to be the least threatening Atlanta frontcourt offensive threat. McHale had the arduous task of staying with 'Nique. Wilkins had to chase No. 33 around, but not vice versa.

"I just remember that fourth quarter," says Wilkins. "Bird would come down and make a basket and I'd say to myself, 'Damn, I better get one back so we stay in the game.' And it went that way until the last play."

Wilkins clearly tired, offering less and less defensive resistance. This was evident at the critical 109-105 juncture, when Bird flicked away an entry pass intended for Antoine Carr and then ran to the left wing, setting up camp behind the 3-point line, directly in front of the Hawks bench.

Larry knew what he would do long before he received the ball. "I wanted that 3-pointer to put the game away," he explains. "But I don't think I would have taken that particular shot if I weren't hot already."

Wilkins was 2 feet away, but either unwilling or unable to put his hands up. Larry caught the ball and gave it his best Mazeroski release. The ball swished, and you know it had to be a Johnny Most dog-whistle call.

At no point did Bird give much thought to the historic greatness of what had been going on. "You're kind of aware that you and Dominique are both hitting," Bird says, "but all I was thinking was, 'Get this game over with and get on to the next one.' It's not like you're saying, 'Wow, this is great.' It's 'Let's win and get out of here.' "

The crushing 3-pointer with 1:43 left put Atlanta in an untenable catch-up posture, but the Hawks kept scrapping and it took a 50-foot lefthanded Bird outlet to Danny Ainge (resulting in a goaltended sneakaway layup) with 12 seconds left to provide the final breathing room.

The reviewers were unanimous: Four Stars, Two Thumbs Up, Boffo, Magnifique, Encore!

"That's as hard as I've ever worked in my life, and the guy still had 47," saluted McHale. "I was draped on Dominique three or four times and he still made the shot. I wouldn't have been surprised if they called fouls."

"Larry wanted it," exclaimed then Atlanta assistant Don Chaney. "He wanted the ball, and he came through. That's what superstars are made of."

A continent away, the enraptured world champion Lakers watched it on TV immediately prior to their seventh game against Utah. "I was already ready," declared Magic Johnson, "but that game got me ready."

Without Larry vs. 'Nique and the Great Shootout, it was a wonderful game. With it, the game was transcendent. Even if Larry thinks it was merely "decent." Perhaps if that lone in-and-out had dropped, he'd have been more impressed with himself.



A play-by-play look at Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird's fourth-quarter duel at Boston Garden in Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals,starting with Bird's first basket.

10:03 -- Bird hits foul-line jumper. Celtics, 88-86.

9:26 -- Bird connects on rainbow from 21 feet. Celtics, 90-88.

8:53 -- Bird heaves up lefthanded banker off glass from right corner for 3-point play. Celtics, 93-90.

8:39 -- Wilkins nails one-handed, flatfooted jumper from left wing. 93-93.

8:05 -- Bird hits transition jumper. Celtics, 95-93.

5:57 -- Wilkins connects on left corner jumper. 99-99.

5:42 -- Bird sinks lefthanded jumper in lane. Celtics, 101-99.

5:25 -- Wilkins uses stutter-step on Kevin McHale and nails jumper from 18 feet. 101-101.

5:06 -- Bird hits 17-footer from left wing. Celtics, 103-101.

4:38 -- Wilkins banks in shot from right side. 103-103.

3:34 -- Bird connects in heavy traffic in lane. Celtics, 107-105.

1:43 -- Bird sticks 3-pointer in Wilkins' face in front of Hawks bench. Celtics, 112-105.

1:31 -- Wilkins hits on turnaround in lane. Celtics, 112-107.

0:26 -- Bird goes hard to hoop for lefty drive. Celtics, 114-109.

0:20 -- Wilkins attempts dunk over crowd, misses but gets own rebound for lay-in. Celtics, 114-111.

0:01 -- Wilkins makes first of two free throws. Intentionally misses second. Final score: Celtics, 118-116.

1 comment:

FLCeltsFan said...

That 4th quarter was awesome! I get excited just reading the report about it.

' The whole thing with pro sports is confidence. I always tried to fire myself up."

Exactly what I've been saying about Rondo's shooting.

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