Thirty years ago, on May 22nd, 1988, NBA fans were blessed with what remains the greatest single game, head-to-head player battle in NBA playoff history when Dominique Wilkins faced off against Larry Bird in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
In order to understand the significance of this event, we must rewind two years prior to the 1986 playoffs, where the Celtics dominated the Hawks and cruised to a 4-1 series win. As the rematch unfolded in 1988, it appeared that it was going to be business as usual as the Celtics jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.
But then "The Human Highlight Film" and the Hawks woke up and rolled off three straight wins to take a 3-2 series lead, heading back to the Omni in Atlanta with eyes on closing it out and finally defeating Larry Legend's mighty Celtics.
"We were a good team. They knew we were good." said Hawks coach Mike Fratello. "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."
Said Hawks' guard John 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.”
But these were the mythical Boston Celtics.
They were the 1986 NBA Champions and they were not going out like that regardless of the stunning three consecutive loses or the fact that they were heading down to Atlanta in a win-or-go-home game. Despite 'Nique and Doc Rivers dropping 35 and 32, respectively, the Celtics delivered a more balanced attack and escaped with a 102-100 win, setting up the classic Game 7.
"Larry Bird made the prediction that he guaranteed a win going into Game 7," said Dominique. "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.”
"I never really gave a guarantee." said Bird. "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."
The game was a back and forth affair, with the Celtics taking a two point lead, 86-84, into the fourth quarter. Dominique was delivering on his locker room promise, giving every Celtics defender the business to the tune of 31 points. Bird, on the other hand, was on the winning side of the three quarters but he only had 14 points in that span.
But fans know that the fourth quarter is where heroes are made and games are won, and that remained true in this epic duel.
Athletes know what it's like to be in the zone, where every shot feels like it's going in regardless of the difficulty or who's guarding you. You know it from the second the ball leaves your hand and that's what happened in those final twelve minutes, as Bird and Dominique basically played HORSE while others watched or accumulated assists.
The game was ultimately decided in the final seconds as the Hawks had one last opportunity on an intentionally missed free throw by 'Nique, but the Hawks succumbed to the Boston Garden magic and lost the game 118-116. Wilkins finished with a game-high 47 points, 16 of which came in the fourth quarter. Bird finished with 34, erupting for 20 in the final period. If you watched the game then, you understood what you were seeing surpassed special. Bank shots, three-pointers, dunks, it didn't matter. Everything seemed to go in for #21 and #33 and you didn't want to see it end.
Larry Legend's reflection tells the full magnitude of the game's impact.
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.
There are many memorable performances and moments in NBA Playoff history. Isiah Thomas and his ankle injury in the 1988 Finals, "The Dunk" by John Starks in 1993, Jordan's "Flu Game" in 1997 and LeBron leading the Cavs back from a 3-1 deficit to win the title last year are just a few of these games that we will always remember. But none of them possess the individual, head-to-head match-up excitement that the 1988 Game 7 "Duel" game did.
And with today's NBA game, it appears that Dominique and Bird won't have to relinquish the honor of the greatest individual duel in playoff history any time soon.