Nique vs. Bird: An Oral History of the NBA's Greatest Playoff Duel
Twenty-five years ago on May 22, 1988, two Hall of Famers staged what is widely considered to be the greatest one-on-one battle in NBA Playoff history. In a game that lingers in the minds of NBA fans everywhere (and seemingly can be seen on NBA TV at any given time), Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird put on a show nonpareil, a can-you-top-this clinic of offensive basketball that captivated all involved spectators -- players and coaches included. This is the story of that afternoon.
"It’s a duel. Who’s going to blink first?" -- CBS analyst Tommy Heinsohn
THE LEAD UP
The Hawks and Celtics occupied much different places in the NBA pecking order in 1988, but the tide was turning. Boston won the title in 1986 with what some consider the greatest team in NBA history, but lost in the Finals to the Lakers in 1987 and faced challenges from up-and-coming squads in Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta. The Hawks finished the 1987-88 season 50-32, and after dispatching the Milwaukee Bucks in round one, matched up with Boston in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Dominique Wilkins (Hawks small forward): We thought we were going to win it that year. We really did. We felt good about the way we were playing, particularly the second half of the season. We just grew to have so much confidence in ourselves and each other that we believed we could have won.
Larry Bird (Celtics small forward): They were up and coming. They were young. They played together, and Dominique was the leader. They had the makings of a great basketball team.
Kevin Willis (Hawks power forward): We were a cohesive unit, and I think that’s what helped us get so far in that series to Game 7. We believed in one another, we believed in what we were doing. We were very, very confident that we could get this thing done.
Cliff Levingston (Hawks backup center): It was like traveling with a rock band that year. Our warmups were like a dunk contest. Everybody was at the game, and when we would go out with 15-18 minutes left on the clock before the game, it was full. We were putting on a dunk contest and everybody was all excited about the Atlanta Hawks coming to town, the high-flying young team. The Hawks fans were even more excited. On and off the court, whatever we did fans followed us. They flocked to us.
John Battle (Hawks backup guard): That series was always going to be memorable. It was a different sense when you were playing Boston. There was a different energy level you must rise up to. And not only you but it was the responsibility of the fans to rise up during their work hours, during their day to get to a different level to root for a team that is playing Boston.
Scott Hastings (Hawks backup forward/center): I remember beating them in the regular season and Tree Rollins, myself, and Doc Rivers had been to this bar out toward Marietta somewhere and this guy had a Celtics jersey. He told us if we ever beat them we could burn that jersey. So we came out after that game, went straight to that bar, ordered a pitcher of beer, got that shirt out, put some lighter fluid on it and torched that sucker right in the middle of the bar.
The Celtics took the first two games of the series in Boston by comfortable margins. After beating the Hawks 4-1 in the 1986 playoffs, it appeared a similar outcome was likely as the series shifted to Atlanta.
Mark Bradley (Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist): The Celtics had pretty much dominated the Hawks. They beat them badly in the playoffs in ’86. Two years later the Hawks weren’t expected to give them much of a series, and the first two games they didn’t. Then they came (to Atlanta) and everything changed. The Hawks won Game 3 on a day when the Celtics basically shot terribly and it was hard to tell if that was because the Hawks were good or the Celtics were bad. In Game 4 the Celtics played really well and the Hawks beat them again. That was the first time anybody really thought that the Hawks might actually have a chance in the series.
Bob Ryan (Boston Globe columnist): The Hawks win in Game 5 was not normal. Traditionally, the Celtics would win Game 5 in a 2-2 series.
Steve Holman (Hawks radio play-by-play voice and Boston-area native): We won Game 4 and went back to Boston. Everybody kind of pooh-poohed that we had won the two games in Atlanta, because they expected us to get killed in Game 5. And all of a sudden, Game 5, ‘Nique has a big game, Randy Wittman has a big game, Doc Rivers had a big game and we beat them. Shocked the world really -- people were stunned up there. In fact, I had beer poured on me. We were upstairs back then, the little booth upstairs, and there was a luxury box over us -- or what amounted to a luxury box there -- and I was doing my routine and this guy took a beer and poured it right over my head. I took a picture of the scoreboard that night with one of those throw-away cameras and I still have that picture.
|In the course of interviewing the players, coaches, and journalists who participated in the oral history, two recurring themes came up that didn't fit in the narrative of Game 7, but are worth mentioning just the same.
One deals with the overlooked greatness of the career of Dominique Wilkins, and the other touches on the special bonds formed by the players on the 1987-88 Hawks team, bonds that remain to this day. Check them out.
-- Outtakes: Dominique Wilkins, Underrated Superstar
-- Outtakes: 1987-88 Hawks A Team To Remember
Danny Ainge (Celtics shooting guard): When we lost Game 5, they certainly got our attention. I remember how quiet our team was in the locker room afterwards. They had beaten us in the Garden and going down to Atlanta in Game 6 there was not a lot of talk. It was all business. We knew what we had to do. Game 6 was probably the toughest one because you’re playing on the road in a packed house and they got all the momentum.
Mike Fratello (Hawks head coach): We were a good team. They knew we were good. You have to have some belief in yourself when you’re down 0-2 to the Celtics and you come back to take a 3-2 lead. That says something about the character of the players, the mental toughness, and the desire and effort it took to come back in that series. Everybody thought that series was over and that it was going to be a sweep.
The Hawks would return to Atlanta with the chance to close out the series and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the team moved to the city from St. Louis in 1968.
Battle: We won Game 5 and now we are going home thinking -- and this is a bad thing, but champions think like this -- “Let’s put them away. Let’s not go back to Boston. We have to put them away now.”
Doc Rivers (Hawks point guard): The city was absolutely on fire, which was really cool. You could feel the intensity. They were all pulling for us. I had never seen Atlanta like that for sports. It was nice to see. I remember going to the game that day and getting into the arena, that place was buzzing.
Holman: The Omni was as raucous as it had ever been. People were hanging from the rafters right from the start, all night. Even an hour before the game, people were in their seats. I remember people carrying a coffin around that said “KC Jones Retirement Party.*” It was great.
* Jones retired as Celtics coach after the 1987-88 season after leading the team to the NBA Finals in four of his five years at the helm.
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.
The game was a back-and-forth affair through three quarters, with rarely a lead of more than a possession or two for either side. Entering the fourth quarter, the Celtics led by two, 84-82. Wilkins had a game-high 31 points, while Bird had a relatively quiet 14. That was all about to change.
Bird: When the game started everything was close. My mindset in the playoffs was that you play, see how the game’s going, what your teams need you to do the most. Early on in the game we were rolling along there and I was just trying to feel out the game, make plays, and do what I needed to do to advance. Dominique had scored a lot of points and I just felt the game happening. In the fourth quarter I got hot, made some plays, made some shots. We were matching basket for basket. You could tell it was going to be close because of the way they were playing.
Wilkins: We were running down the court -- me, Bird, and Kevin Willis. Kevin reached across me and said “Don’t let that son of a gun score anymore man.” I’m like what are you doing? Bird’s eyes got like this big. I knew it was going to be on then. It just woke him up. That’s where the great shootout began.
Kevin Willis: Bird started hitting shots that were nearly impossible to make, but he was making them. You know Dominique, he is not going to be shown up, especially in a big game down the stretch like that. It became a show for us. Even though we were in the game it was like, wow. Who’s going to miss?
Levingston: It was almost like a game of HORSE. Bird makes this shot, off the glass. Dominique comes down, off the glass. Larry goes down, all net. Dominique goes down, all net. Larry gets a layup, Dominique gets a layup. This was basically full court one-on-one, with a few guys out there to pass the ball and get out of the way.
Wilkins: Bird had guarded me that whole series, but not in that game. I think they put him on Kevin Willis or someone. But I had to chase him on the other end.
Rivers: I don’t think either one of them took easy shots. You could categorize half their makes as bad shots that went in. That’s what was so impressive about it. ‘Nique had one that was just an impossible shot. It was a bank shot that you shouldn’t take, you can’t take, and yet he took it and made it. It got to the point they were looking for those shots, they were trying to take those shots, and making them all.
Fratello: We knew we wanted to get the ball into Dominique’s hands because he was on such a roll, just like Boston wanted to get it to Larry because he had it going. If you threw it to Dominique you got an assist that night. I could have got one from the bench passing it to him he was so hot.
Heinsohn: It just was a great experience to watch each one trying to dominate the other. I’d seen guys score 60, but never matched by somebody else. This was a game of will power between these two guys. This was not coaches designing plays, it was “I’m taking you and I’m gonna kick your butt.”
Spud Webb (Hawks backup guard): Dominique (usually) didn’t play well against Kevin McHale because his arms were so long, but that game there was nothing that McHale could do. And there was nothing we could do with Larry Bird.
Bill Walton (Celtics backup center): Dominique Wilkins was truly one of the unstoppable forces in the history of basketball. We referred to him as “Dom,” as in Dom Perignon, the fine champagne. We couldn't stop him, so Larry said “Well, we will just have to outscore him,” and he did.
Ryan: Bird had one great shot that was going right to left, and he stumbled and threw it up and they fouled him and the ball banked in, a left-hander thing from down the middle for a three-point play. That was just pure luck.
Levingston: That was the thing with Boston Garden. There is no way that shot is supposed to go in. How did that shot get up there to go in the basket? It was just so unreal that things like that happened in that building.
Late in the game, Larry Bird hit what appeared to be the final dagger, a three from the corner to make it 112-105, giving the Celtics their largest lead of the game.
Webb: That three he hit in front of our bench, was just ... it looked good when it left his hand.
Rivers: He damn near fell into our bench. We were just shaking our heads like, wow.
Ryan: This was a team that Bird dropped 60 on in ‘85, in New Orleans. They had seen quite the best of Larry over the years.
Wilkins: I remember the game where he scored 60 against us. He shot a three with his left hand. With his left! That’s how hot he was. You got to be fundamentally sound to do that.
Levingston: I caught a few of Larry Bird’s 50-point games. He is the second-best player I ever played against behind Michael. He would tell you where he was going to shoot the ball and how he was going to shoot it. He would take you all over the place, setting picks, coming back and the next thing you look up and he is shooting from that spot and you are like “Oh no.”
Holman: It was everything that people say it was. We probably didn’t all realize it, even at the time, at the moment, how great a game it was going to become and go down in the history books.
Paxson: Being there, it wasn’t like this is a historic epic battle, it was like hey, I hope Larry keeps scoring and they keep missing so we can win.
Wilkins: Everybody talks about the shootout Bird and myself had, but you had a lot of people who had great games. Randy Wittman had 22 points. Doc Rivers had 16 with 18 assists in that game. Kevin McHale had 33. People don’t even talk about that.
Randy Wittman (Hawks shooting guard): That was one of my better games. I was 11 for 13 or something of that nature. As I told ‘Nique, he didn’t give me the ball enough shooting that percentage. Then Fratello traded me shortly after the season. So that was the last time I wanted to go 11 for 13, I guess.
Battle: Everyone on the floor had a good game. It was so contagious to be around such greatness. You were watching them not miss and you were going to start to miss? Wasn’t going to happen. It was leadership at its best, Bird pushed his team to be good and Wilkins pushed his team. They asked everybody, without a word, to be the best that night.
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 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?
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.