Dominique Wilkins and his Hawks stood for individualism, athleticism, highlights, youthful energy. Larry Bird’s Celtics were characterized by finesse and game intelligence, by team basketball. And they had gotten old – in the mid-’80s still the best team in the league; the Celtics went increasingly injured to the end of an era.
Accordingly, they also had with the younger Hawks much bigger problems than in previous years. After two victories at the inauguration, Atlanta brought three wins in series, one of them even in the legendary Boston Garden. Giving up was not an option, so Bird and Co. got Game 6 in Atlanta. The decision went home – and Bird was as confident as ever.
“Bird had guaranteed before game 7 that the Celtics would win,” Wilkins later recalled.” Tree Rollins had alerted me, and I said to him, ‘If you’re not ready to fight, do not even come with me, because whoever comes to me today will have a long evening.”
Game 7 began, and Wilkins kept his word. He had already collected 31 points after three quarters, while Bird held back with 14 points until then and Kevin McHale (33 points) had the job done. Still, the game was tight all the time, with Boston leading the final quarter with 84:82. And then Kevin Willis made a momentous mistake.
Wilkins: “We ran down the field, Kevin, Bird and I. Kevin stretched out his arm and said, ‘Do not let the bum make a point!’ Larry was within earshot, I just figured, what the hell are you doing, Larry’s eyes suddenly became huge, I knew it would start now, it woke him up, and then the shootout started.”
And that’s exactly how it happened. Both swayed within minutes so high that it tore the spectators and bench players collectively from the seats. Everything went in – on both sides.
A layup in tripping, with his left hand over the outstretched arms of two defenders of Bird. A three from Wilkins. A Leaner from Bird. A jumper by Wilkins on McHale’s “Gorilla” Arms. A bird-floater with the left. Jumper Wilkins, Jumper Bird. Baby Hook Wilkins, Jumper Bird. It went up and down!
“It was like a HORSE game,” recalled Hawks guard Cliff Levingston. “Every now and then they outbid each other, basically, it was like one-on-one over the court, everyone else was just there to drop the ball and get out of the way.”
Just before the end, Bird seemed to have his nose in front – once again. 1:44 minutes from the end, he hit a three from the corner, just in front of Hawks bench, putting Boston in a lead 112:105. “He almost fell on our lap,” Doc Rivers looked back, with 16 points and 18 assists, even one of the forgotten heroes of this game. “We just shook our heads.”
Wilkins then hit two free throws, Bird countered by layup over Willis. Wilkins missed his next shot, but grabbed the rebound and corrected the mistake. 114:111, 20 seconds left to play. Then the refs turned on in an unfortunate way.
Danny Ainge had run ahead of Wilkins’ last basket and been found by Bird by Outlet Pass. He had an open layup, but Rivers came out of nowhere and blocked him. Instead, Goaltending was decided, which even Heinsohn – known to be perhaps the most partisan commentator in the history of mankind – described as a mistake. Logically, there was no replay center, so the Hawks had no choice but to start the next attempt. And indeed: One second before the end Wilkins went back to the line at the 118:115. The first attempt was successful, Atlanta was still alive. The second he deliberately missed – but the Hawks were not able to get the last chance to shoot.
“It was certainly one of the best playoff games ever in terms of drama,” said former Hawks coach Mike Fratello later.” Game 7, the Boston Garden, the duel between two Hall-of-Famers, and then this end with our desperate attempt to somehow get to the tip-in.”
Wilkins’ 47 points, 16 of them in the last quarter, were outbid by Bird’s 34 (20 in the final quarter). The Hawks dropped out and were torn apart a little later – in fact, Atlanta only came to the Conference Finals in 2015, 27 years later.