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Jack McCallum
May 30, 1988
In the end, Larry Bird had to bring all his talents to bear for Boston to beat Atlanta
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May 30, 1988

Taken To The Limit

In the end, Larry Bird had to bring all his talents to bear for Boston to beat Atlanta

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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.

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