Dominique Wilkins
Wilkins averaged 31.3 points per game in the seven-game series against the Celtics.
David Klutho/Sports Illustrated

 

Nique vs. Bird: An Oral History of the NBA's Greatest Playoff Duel

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Wilkins followed his own miss with a putback to cut the Celtics lead to 114-111 with 20 seconds left. Thinking quickly, Bird immediately inbounded to Ainge streaking down court for what appeared to be an uncontested layup. Rivers sprinted and got there just in time to bother the shot, but referee Hugh Evans ruled it a goaltend.

Rivers: I still know I didn’t goaltend to this day. The first time I ever watched the game was during the lockout last year. Comcast Sports Net wanted to do something on the game, and they asked me to watch it. I actually said no a couple of times, because I really had no interest in watching that game, but I finally did. So I watched and told them to slow it down so I could see it. And even Tommy Heinsohn, which was hard for him to do, said it was not a goaltend.

Ainge: As I recall, it was definitely goaltending. But as I look back on the replay, maybe it wasn’t (laughs). Doc came outta nowhere. I thought he easily long-jumped far enough away to get that shot off the glass. It was really close.

Wilkins went to the line with :01 left to play and the Hawks trailing 118-115. After making the first, he intentionally missed the second -- his only free-throw miss of the night -- but the Hawks could not take advantage, and the Celtics advanced with a 118-116 win. For the game Wilkins scored a game-high 47 points, with 16 in the fourth quarter. Bird finished with 34 overall, 20 in the final stanza.

Fratello: It has to be amongst the top playoff games as far as the dramatics. Game 7, in Boston Garden, the duel between the two great players, coming down to the last free throw which we had to miss intentionally to try and get a tip in.

Walton: It was an unbelievable display of human spirit and leadership. It was what you live for as a player, as a fan, as a broadcaster. It was better than perfect. I just wish I could have been a part of it*.

* Walton spent the entire 1987-88 season on injured reserve.

Hastings: I’ll bet you less than two percent of the people left their seats in the fourth quarter. There were probably guys that wet themselves because you didn’t want to get up.

Bird: Anytime you go down to the last couple shots in the game, sometimes it is luck that the ball falls for you, and you make the plays. We had been in that situation quite a bit prior to that series and we had confidence we could make the plays, but it was a lot tougher than we wanted it to be.

Ryan: My personal analogy for that game was the Doug Flutie-Miami game. If Flutie doesn’t throw the TD pass against Miami, it’s still one of the greatest college football games I have ever seen. The final score was 49-45, I think. It was a tremendous game with great players, yet the end is all anybody remembers. But believe me the first 59 minutes and 50 seconds were pretty damn good. And this game, all anybody talks about is the 4th quarter.  It was just tremendous. 

Battle: That night we would have beaten anybody in the NBA ... except Boston. If we had played that type of game in Game 6, Boston never would have made it. They had to bring the best game they had ever played. Little did anybody see the admiration and the appreciation of the Boston Celtics players. As we were walking back to the locker room and they were saying, “We played a great team tonight, and we just got by.” I saw it and felt it in their handshakes, like “You guys are a great team.”

Rivers: I always thought I’d had a horrible game. Up until a few years ago, when we played the Hawks in the playoffs, Danny brings the stat sheet of the game and was like, “Oh my God, did you see the numbers in Game 7?” I said, “No I was awful.” “What awful?” I knew I had a lot of points and a ton of assists, but I never knew the exact stats. I remember getting ripped at the end of the third quarter. It’s amazing how your mind remembers the negative, you know what I mean?

Dominique Wilkins, Larry Bird, and Steve HolmanDominique Wilkins, Larry Bird, and Steve Holman pose at a Hawks-Pacers game. (NBAE/Getty Images)

Ainge: We talked about it. I remember teasing him that he was trying to pick me up full-court and it didn’t work and things like that. It’s always fun when you can look back and you win. The best part of winning is you have the bragging rights.

Holman: I think that’s the one thing everyone feels they gave it their best shot and they played extremely well. If not for one of the greatest players in history, Larry Bird, doing what he did, who knows what would have happened.

Rollins: We didn’t have a team plane so we had to go sit around at the Boston airport. Sitting there we just wanted to get out of Boston like “Scotty, beam us out of here.” Just running the game back through your head and thinking about what you could have done better. One rebound or one more blocked shot, something that we could have done to win the game. After that our team got broken up a little bit and it was just such a sad time. All the effort we had put in, the preparation, the energy ... sitting in the airport just waiting on the plane to get back to Atlanta, it felt like it took us days to get home.

Levingston: We were sitting at the airport and we were all stunned.  The season is over. How did we lose that game? We should have won that game.  Larry Bird, we had him in check, how did he get loose to have such an explosive 4th quarter? 

AFTERMATH

The series was a tipping point for both franchises. The Celtics would lose to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals, then wouldn’t reach the NBA Finals again for 20 years. The Hawks have come close, but have yet to break through to the Conference finals. But perhaps it didn’t have to go down that way.

Ryan: I believe that had the Hawks won, it would have changed the entire course of Hawks history. That was a very good team that really might have been able to accomplish something. 

Bradley: The Hawks just didn’t have enough to win it. Afterwards it was kind of hard to know how to feel. On one hand they had lost the series, but on the other hand, they had made a series of something that didn’t seem like it would be any kind of a competition at all. I think there was great pride and great excitement and disappointment too.

Rivers: We never recovered. We ended up making a big trade and changing our team, which you know, probably was not the right decision when you look back on it. 

Wittman: It could have been different. We win that series and who’s to say that’s not us moving forward in the next three, four, five years of building it up. They kind of split up the team after that ’88 series, and it wasn’t really the same after that.

Holman: I’ve often wondered myself what would happen that next year if we had stayed with the exact same team, kept Tree Rollins and Randy Wittman instead of going after Moses Malone and Reggie Theus. I loved Moses. I know those moves were made to give us more offense. They thought we needed more offense.

Ryan: It was the last hurrah for the Celtics. They got beat by Detroit in the subsequent series and they never got back. Bird was already into his injury phase. Starting in ‘89, he got hurt, that was his last four years, nothing but teases and questions of was he going to be healthy.  He didn’t practice very much, he was always hurt. And McHale had already gotten his foot messed up the year before and was starting a slow decline. 

Ainge: Larry was hurt in that series. He was hurt that whole playoff season and he ended up getting the surgery the following year. He wasn’t even close to 100% and he never returned to the level of player that he was before his double Achilles tendon surgeries. He had back issues as well. You could definitely sense that our team was on the decline. Kevin and Larry weren’t the same players in 1988 that they had been in all of the 1980s before then. You could see some decline in their games.

25 years later, the game still resonates with those who were there, and many who weren’t.

Rivers: The joke I tell in Boston now, there is no way that as many people who have told me that they were at that game could have been at the game. It’s up to about 60,000! I know the Garden doesn’t hold that many people. I mean, I’ll get it this week at some point. “Hey I was at the game.” I’m like, that’s too many people.

Webb: People ask me about it all the time, it’s unbelievable. Even when I’m playing golf with guys, when we are sitting in the clubhouse they’ll ask what it was like in the Garden in Game 7. You can’t explain it -- you had to see it.

Willis: I go to games when the team plays Boston now and people say “It wasn’t like Game 7 back in the 80s. Don’t get it confused.” and I say, I know it. It aint gonna never be like that again.

Bird: I played in a lot of great games, and it’s hard to rank them. They’re all different you know. I know I felt one thing, after that game: It was the best one I ever played. I said, whoa I can play.

Wilkins: I remember walking off the floor and Bird said we both deserved to win but unfortunately somebody has to go home. It was a series that you could hold your head up and say, you know what? We went hard and gave it everything we had. Both teams did.

Micah Hart is the Director of Interactive Marketing for the Atlanta Hawks. Follow him on twitter here.

Thanks to Jon Steinberg, Garin Narain, Jeff Twiss, and Erich Kobler for their contributions to this story.