Nique vs. Bird: An Oral History of the NBA's Greatest Playoff Duel
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With their backs to the wall, the Celtics jumped out to an early lead in Game 6 and kept the Hawks at bay for most of the game. A furious rally gave Atlanta a chance to send the game to overtime in the closing seconds, but the final possession went awry and Boston prevailed, 102-100.
Wilkins: I don’t think we were tight. I just think we didn’t take advantage of opportunities late in the game. The Celtics were not the type of team you could make many mistakes against. You make mistakes against that team and they would kill you. They had five Hall of Famers on that team.
Levingston: It came down to the last shot, and it was supposed to go to Dominique but I ended up taking it and it rolled off the rim.
Wilkins: He went to the basket and threw up the left-hand shot and it fell short. I was really mad (laughs). But it was one of those things that, you know, it’s okay.
Rivers: We had a golden opportunity to close the Celtics out in Game 6 so we would never have to go back to Boston. After we lost, I remember landing in Boston and this old lady, I bet she was 80 years old, looks at me at the airport -- you flew commercial in those days. We are waiting for our bags, and she walks up to me and said, “Hey Rivers, thought you wouldn’t be here, didn’t you?”
Everything was set for winner-take-all Game 7 in Boston. The pressure was high on both teams, but Larry Bird ratcheted it up a notch before the game by guaranteeing a Celtics win, saying of the Hawks: “They might as well forget it, they’ve got no chance… They had a chance to beat us and we all knew if we lost it meant vacation tomorrow.”
Wilkins: Larry Bird made the prediction that he guaranteed a win going into Game 7. I remember coming out of the locker room and Tree Rollins brought this to my attention. I said “If you ain’t ready to fight, if you ain’t ready to go to war, then don’t even come out. Because whoever goes against me tonight is gonna have a long night.”
Jeff Twiss (longtime Celtics VP of Media Services/PR): I never heard Bird say the word “guarantee” but he was always very confident. He’d say, “We’re going to beat these…” I can’t use the word. “These guys.” I’ll leave it at that. He just had that confidence.
Jim Paxson (Celtics backup guard): I don’t think anybody looked at it as any big deal. We already knew what the pressure was. We had to win or we were going home. Larry was the type of guy, he was always very confident in himself and in the team. There was one time when I was in Portland and he came out to the jump ball and said "I’m going to get 40 on you," to Calvin Natt.* I think he got forty-something. It was just his way, and an indirect way to instill confidence in his teammates.
*A cursory glance at Basketball Reference’s game finder suggests this could have happened on a number of occasions. Bird dropped 40+ on the Blazers seven times in his career.
Tommy Heinsohn (CBS color commentator and Celtics legend): Bird would walk into the locker room at the All-Star Game for the 3-point contest and say, “Which one of you guys is gonna come in second?” He had a lot of bravado, but I think that’s how he challenged himself.
Bird: I never really gave a guarantee. I said we would come back to Boston and good things usually happen. They blew that out (of proportion) a little bit. I didn’t guarantee it. It was more or less we are going back to Boston and we should win the game because we usually do.
Ainge: He turned out to be right. He backed up his words (laughs).
The Hawks had won in Boston in Game 5, but doing it again was no small task. The Celtics had lost only five times there during the regular season, and the building was notorious for providing a unique homecourt advantage -- one that seemed to extend out into the City as well.
Rivers: The morning of Game 7, no one got their room service (order) at the hotel. We didn’t know what was going on. We just assumed it was Red Auerbach being Red Auerbach. I remember having chips on the bus going to the game. A couple guys tried to get things after the walkthrough in the ball room. We were all scrambling just to get something to eat.
Holman: Red Auerbach was the ultimate competitor. Sometimes the board was there in the locker room but the chalk wasn’t, or sometimes the chalk was there but not the board. Those were all little things. I remember us getting a ticket on the bus one time. They pulled us over on Storrow Drive. That was always said to be one of the things they’d do to delay teams from getting to the arena. Sometimes the bus driver would pretend to get lost, take the wrong turn going around the North End to get to the Garden.
Rivers: There was no chalk board for Coach Fratello before Game 7 and I remember him losing his mind. He’s in the hallway screaming, “Where the hell is my chalk board?” I remember just laughing away. We have played them six times, what are you going to put on that board that is going to be different? We could care less, but Mike was so mad. He was mad at Red. He was just convinced again it was the Boston stuff.
Fratello: There were certain times of year where there was no heat in the locker room and other times there was too much when you were in the warmer weather or playoff time. That was the Garden. The parquet floor, knowing where the dead spots were, all those things were rumors that would go around. Mr. Auerbach was not trying to make you feel like you were being put up in a Four Seasons or the Ritz Carlton when you were in that locker room.
Bird: It was hot for us too you know. We were used to it but they never did have air conditioning in the Garden.
Heinsohn: It’s all bull. The hockey team owned the arena so we got second on everything. Dressing rooms, the floor was built after the Second World War with remnants of lumber because there was a shortage of lumber. That’s how they came up with the parquet floor. All of the stuff people talk about, some evil genius found out, turned the heat up, turn the heat down, please. The Celtics had the same thing. It was cold in the Celtics locker room. When I was playing it was a little tiny room. You got two hooks and that was it. One shower. Everybody had to have reasons for not winning.
Ryan: The Garden thing was a myth, but Red loved it. If people wanted to think that he was fine with it. But it was utter fiction.
Game 7 was played on a Sunday afternoon at Boston Garden, part of a playoff doubleheader as the Bruins would play in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals that night against the Edmonton Oilers.
Tree Rollins (Hawks center): The game started and even though the Boston crowd was crazy, I remember it being so quiet. I could hear sneakers screeching on the floor, I could hear the coaches screaming out the plays, I could hear my teammates talking on offense and defense. It was probably the highest level of concentration I ever had as a basketball player.
Rivers: I really believed going into Game 7 we were going to win. I told our guys that going into it. The whole locker room was ready. We were going to surprise everyone because everyone thought we would just go in there and get blown out.
Bradley: The feeling then was not only had the Hawks blown their chance to clinch, but they had also set themselves up for another postseason humiliation in Boston Garden. They had lost the clinching game there in 1986 and gotten outscored 36-6 in the third quarter. A lot of people frankly thought it would be like that again. It wasn’t. They played one of the great games in the history of the franchise.