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."