The Atlanta Hawks stared history square in the face during Game 7 of their Eastern Conference playoff series at Boston Garden, and they didn't blink. The problem for the Hawks was this: Staring back at them was a hauntingly familiar visage, one with a pasty complexion, a wispy mustache and, in keeping with the postseason spirit, a bright-red gash, acquired in Game 3, on the forehead. It was you-know-who.
Anything less than the transcendent fourth period that Larry Bird threw at Atlanta on Sunday, and all those Boston Celtics obituaries that had been set in type since October would have seen the light of day. However, Bird made nine of his 10 field goal attempts in the final 12 minutes to lift Boston to a 118-116 victory and into the Eastern Conference finals against the Detroit Pistons. Any of this sound familiar?
The win, which was every bit as close as the score suggests, raised the Celtics' record in postseason seventh games at Boston Garden to a remarkable 14-2. But believe it or not, this isn't the part where you start reading about mystique and banners and parquet and ghosts and all of that. No, Sunday's shimmering seventh was a game rooted firmly in the reality of the present, in the graceful brilliance of Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins and in the cool-eyed professionalism of Bird and the other Celtics. One might say the game was also about the future, that the Hawks' brave effort was a solid indication not that Boston has slipped but that its Eastern pursuers have taken another step up the mountain. The playoff against the Pistons, which was to begin Wednesday night in Boston, would determine if Detroit had closed the gap. It was some gap: Dating back to Dec. 19, 1982, the Pistons had lost 21 straight games in Boston.
Like the Celtics, the defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers emerged from their second-round series huffing and puffing and asking themselves, "Who were those guys?" They were the Utah Jazz, who beat the Lakers once at the Forum (101-97 in Game 2) and fell just short of replicating that feat in Game 5 (a 111-109 L.A. victory). Utah then left the Purple and Gold black-and-blue with a 108-80 skunking at the Salt Palace in Game 6 to tie the series at three victories apiece.
However, the Lakers showed their pedigree with a 109-98 victory in L.A. on Saturday in Game 7. Afterward they sounded as if they had passed their last mortality test of '88. L.A.'s James Worthy told Utah's Thurl Bailey that the series had been the Lakers' toughest in his six seasons. Others sounded the same note. Laker coach Pat Riley: "I don't think we're ever going to play a better team in the playoffs." (Huh?) Guard Magic Johnson: "They played as hard as any team." (Really?) Guard Byron Scott: "We knew Utah would be the biggest test for us on the way to the title." (Say what?) All that should be real bulletin-board stuff for the Dallas Mavericks, against whom the Lakers were to open the Western Conference finals on Monday night at the Forum.
Atlanta's performance against Boston was every bit as surprising as Utah's against L.A. Most observers figured the Celtics would wrap up the series in five games. The Hawks, viewed topographically, have been a succession of peaks and valleys this season. "We all know what people think of when they think of the Hawks." said Atlanta assistant coach Brendan Suhr. "They think of a jivin', high-fivin', low-IQ team."
That isn't what anyone thought after Game 5 at Boston Garden on May 18, when the Hawks beat the Celtics 112-104 to take a 3-2 lead in the series. Atlanta played a superb 43-point fourth quarter—a high-IQ quarter, indeed—to clinch the win, and it seemed nothing could stop the Hawks from wrapping up the series in Game 6 at home on Friday night. They were out to bury Boston, not just to faze it.
And that was Atlanta's trouble. Game 6 showed the benefits of experience and age—the Celtics' starters average 31 years and 10 months, the Hawks' 28 years and five months—over raw, un-channeled emotion. Boston transformed back-to-the-wall desperation into a clear-thinking, measured attack, while Atlanta's let's-bury-'em-tonight aggression led to errors and, ultimately, panic. "I think we were too wound up," said center Tree Rollins after the game. Added guard Doc Rivers, "I think we were so emotionally high, we couldn't maintain our defensive intensity for 48 minutes." When Cliff Levingston, who was only option No. 3 on a desperation inbounds play, got the ball with just four seconds to play and drove and missed an awkward lefthanded shot, the Celtics escaped with a 102-100 victory.
In the locker room Bird was mildly amused to see such a large collection of media types, many of them on hand solely to record the sounds of a dynasty falling. "Guess y'all were here for a funeral," he said. "Well, there wasn't one." When he was asked about Game 7, his eyes narrowed, signaling a change to either his deadly serious mood or his psych-out mode. "They had their chance," he said. "They had a big chance. Now I think we're going to play like this again, only we'll be at home. The shots will be falling. I think Sunday will be a big win—for the Celtics."
To a lesser Atlanta team, i.e., practically any one that had preceded this year's edition, those words would have felt like a bucket of ice to the belt area. But these Hawks had cleared a major mental hurdle with their performance in Game 5, and in Game 7 they saw a chance to demonstrate that they would no longer bow and scrape before the Celtics. "I was incredibly loose before the game." said Wilkins on Sunday. "I saw absolutely no reason we couldn't do what we did in Game 5."
And they did. Atlanta got shooting guard Randy Wittman involved in the offense, and he responded by making seven of nine shots from the field in the first half. Point guard Rivers, who had played the role of dead weight in last year's disappointing second-round playoff loss to Detroit, got back to being the Hawks" anchor in the series against Boston. He had 12 assists and 10 points in the first half on Sunday. And nobody could stop Wilkins, who, when prevented from driving to the basket by the long-armed Kevin McHale (such are Boston's defensive options that it could put its power forward, McHale, on Atlanta's small forward, Wilkins, and its small forward. Bird, on Atlanta's center, Rollins), simply lofted his jumper, which has become as soft as a baby's caress. Many times it kissed off the glass at angles that seemed to defy geometry, but that's how Wilkins has been shooting all season. "I should know those angles," he said, "because that's all I worked on last summer."
The Celtics were being carried by McHale, who had 21 points and nine rebounds in the first half. This had not been the easiest series for the Boston funnyman, who, according to Bird, did not work hard enough to shake free and get the ball in Games 3 and 4, 110-92 and 118-109 losses, respectively, in Atlanta. Last year at this time McHale was Father Courage, playing on a fractured right foot that ultimately needed surgery. Now, like George Bush, he was battling the wimp factor. Go figure.
But no one could deny his presence in Game 7. Despite being locked in hand-to-hand combat with Atlanta strong-boy Kevin Willis. McHale wheeled and whirled to the basket, drawing fouls—he was 13 for 13 from the line for the game—and then scanned the crowd with those dark eyes as he toweled himself down. He somehow played 43 minutes on Sunday without an assist, but, hey, if he had wanted to pass, he would have kept playing hockey in Hibbing, Minn.
Watching the 7-foot Willis guard McHale in a manner that would bring a charge of assault if he practiced the same techniques out on the street, one wonders why it's so difficult to front McHale. Sure, he's 6'10" and has long arms, but that doesn't explain why practically every pass thrown over McHale's defender somehow gets to McHale for an easy basket. The league has taller players, after all.
"Kevin's a position player and knows how to give you that little hip that throws you off," said Willis on Sunday. "But the key is, they've got the guys to throw it in to him." A good point. The carefully angled pass thrown just over the defender is a specialty of Bird's.
But then what isn't? As the Celtics built a 59-58 halftime lead and an 84-82 margin at the conclusion of the third quarter. Bird was just hanging around, doing a little of this, a little of that, same as Dennis Johnson, who finished with 16 points, eight assists, four rebounds and an act of open-court larceny on Rivers that led to a Johnson layup right before the third-quarter buzzer.
Then in the fourth period Bird decided to take flight. He started with a 16-foot jumper and a 13-footer, both of which he made from the right side. "Funny. I never particularly liked that side," says Bird, "but ever since I got here, we've run most of our plays from there, so I just picked it up." Next came a lefthanded drive, which he converted despite being fouled by Antoine Carr and listing badly to the left at the moment of release. "After that went in, I wanted the ball next time down, just to see how hot I really was," Bird said later. So he got it himself with a steal and scored off a baseline drive. That was followed by a lefthanded jumper in the lane and a 17-foot jumper, again from the right.
The last of those shots put Boston ahead 103-101 with 5:06 remaining, so obviously Bird was not the only one putting the ball in the hoop. The Hawks had an answer for everything in Wilkins, who would score 16 points in the fourth quarter and 47 all told, thereby silencing forever the critics who said he played with one hand on the trigger and the other on his throat. "The fourth quarter was like two people standing at arm's length and punching each other," said McHale.
But in the end Bird had more ways of delivering painful blows. He converted a three-pointer from the left side (the man is not picky) with 1:43 remaining. A driving lefthanded layup with 26 seconds to go gave Boston a 114-109 lead and Bird his 19th and 20th points of the quarter. To get open for that shot Bird went around the double team of Wilkins and Rivers, either of whom could lap him in a 100-yard dash, and barely beat the 24-second clock. Some things can't be explained.
Others can. After Wilkins grabbed his own rebound and put it in. Bird quickly retrieved the ball, stepped out of bounds and fired it to a wide-open Danny Ainge at midcourt. That is called presence of mind. Ainge missed the resulting breakaway layup, but Rivers was called for goaltending. The basket gave Boston a 116-111 advantage with 17 seconds to go, and that finished Atlanta. The goaltending call was replayed endlessly on television, but surprisingly the Hawks said little about it later. They seemed to feel that they had done their best, but that on this day the Celtics weren't going to be beat.
"Sure I'd like to be getting on a plane now and flying to Detroit to open the Eastern finals," said Atlanta reserve Scott Hastings. "But, you know, it was kind of a thrill to sit there and watch the way the Celtics played."
"A lot of games you wonder what more you could have done," said Wilkins, "but not today. I can honestly say I did everything I could. We all did."
Obviously that goes for Boston, too. However, as is so often the case, one man did just a little bit more. "Sometimes after Larry plays a game like this it makes me think ahead," said McHale, who had 33 points, one fewer than Bird. "I'll be retired in Minnesota and Larry will be retired somewhere in Indiana, and we probably won't see each other much. But a lot of nights I'll just lie there and remember games like this, and what it was like to play with him."