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.
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
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
"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
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."
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
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.
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.'
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
"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
"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.