With the traditional 1980s Eastern Conference powerhouse Boston Celtics irreversibly aging, and eventually losing Larry Bird, teams such as the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers began to see the 1988-89 campaign as a chance to finally reach the NBA Championship.
Atlanta’s great nucleus built around superstar Dominique Wilkins was further strengthened with the additions of versatile guard Reggie Theus and experienced center Moses Malone.
Cleveland, on the other hand, built its team around the players selected in the 1986 NBA draft (Ron Harper, John ‘Hot Rod’ Williams, Brad Dougherty). The addition of experienced power forward Larry Nance turned the team’s frontcourt (Nance, Williams, Dougherty) into one of the most fearsome in the NBA.
Being on the floor at the same time they would create numerous mismatches and scoring opportunities. On the defensive end, they would create havoc - each offensive player who would dare try to enter the Cavs’ paint would immediately face the defensive wall consisting of not one, not two, but three players of tremendous size and agility.
One of those ready to accept such a challenge was Atlanta Hawks superstar forward Dominique Wilkins, and he did it in his most unique style on January 24th, 1989.
The whole sequence started with the Hawks’ power forward Antoine Carr posting up on John Williams. Williams managed to contain him and Carr opted to pass the ball back to Reggie Theus in the corner.
Theus, guarded by Ron Harper, drove to the middle. In a split second, sensing that he had drawn the double team, he automatically passed the rock to the wide-open Dominique Wilkins at the top of the key.
It was Wilkins’ man Larry Nance who helped out Harper close out Theus’ drive to the middle. Now, with the ball in Wilkins’ hands, Nance was no longer in position to keep him up in front.
Wilkins started his move and there wasn’t much Nance and Harper could do about it. ‘Nique’ explosively got in the middle of the paint and then tremendously leaped into the air, leaving everyone behind him.
The last line of the Cavs defense was All-Star center Brad Dougherty who desperately tried not to block, but somehow just to alter Wilkins’ shot in the mid-air.
But, Wilkins, who did the whole sequence with great explosive acceleration, was already too high up in the air. Plus, he has taken care of protecting the basketball by cleverly turning his back to Dougherty!
The final result was spectacular - Wilkins dunked the ball with tremendous force, rocked the rim and also made everyone in the OMNI Arena jump to their feet for standing ovations.
In one of the best games of his 1988-89 campaign, the Hawks superstar played just perfect basketball.
He shot the ball 17-24 from the field, hit all three of his three-point attempts and converted 4-5 free-throw attempts en route to 41 points in 41 minutes of playing time!
His presence was also felt on the defensive end of the floor, where he collected 7 boards and 5 steals!
However, neither the rejuvenated Cleveland Cavaliers nor the Atlanta Hawks would go on to become the rulers of the East in the post-Celtics era. Meanwhile, their Central Division rivals, the Detroit Pistons, and the Chicago Bulls had an unbelievable streak of 5 NBA Championship titles in a row, from 1989 to 1993!