Boston Garden will be rocking tonight, as the Celtics host the Atlanta Hawks in Game 4 of what’s shaping up as a highly competitive—if not particularly well-played first-round series in the NBA playoffs. But when it comes to making the Garden rock and competitive Boston-Atlanta showdowns, surely nothing can match 1988, when the teams staged an epic seven-game battle in the Eastern Conference Finals, capped by a final game that’s now part of NBA lore. In the final hours before tonight’s game, BST&N looks back on the great Celtics-Hawks series of 1988.
The Celtics were an aging dynasty, having won four straight Eastern Conference titles from 1984-87, and winning the NBA title twice in that timespan. But the previous year they had begun to show the effects of age, with the 1987 team being remembered for its raw guts and tenacity in holding on to the Eastern throne. While the Detroit Pistons were the most prominent of the contenders looking to displace Boston, Atlanta wasn’t far behind.
Boston went 57-25 and posted the conference’s best record. They easily won what was a bad Atlantic Division at the time, outpacing the Washington Bullets by nineteen games. The Central Division (the conferences were then aligned into two divisions each) produced the 2 thru 6 teams in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket and the first three of those—Detroit, Atlanta and Chicago—won 50 games.
With the conference becoming deeper and requiring more extended playoff runs—Boston’s five-man team looked woefully shallow. The starters all averaged over 30 minutes a game. None of the reserves averaged as many as twenty. Of course when your starters are named Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Danny Ainge and Dennis Johnson, you can still go a long way. Larry Legend averaged thirty a night. McHale was good for 23 ppg, and both he and Parish crashed the boards. Ainge was a top playmaker, with DJ able to contribute offensively and play lockdown defense. With sufficient rest they could beat anyone—a theme that sounds oddly familiar as we get ready to again watch the 2012 Celtics—but how far could the vets carry them.
A first-round playoff series—a round that was then still best-of-five—ended in four games. The Celtics shot 51 percent in the opening two games at home, with Bird exceeding his season-long scoring average and McHale leading a tough rebounding effort for Game 2. New York, with future ABC analyst and current Golden State head coach Mark Jackson in the backcourt, along with Jonny Newman, and Patrick Ewing in the middle, didn’t surrender quietly in Madison Square Garden. This trio combined for 96 points in Game 3 and the Knicks extended the series. But in the finale, the Celts grabbed a road win. They were outrebounded and the Jackson/Newman backcourt lit them up for a combined 53—both issues that suggest fatigue—but 52 percent shooting delivered Boston a 102-94 win. In the 4-5 spot on the Eastern Conference bracket, Atlanta beat Milwaukee in five games, a series where the home team held serve each time.
The Hawks were led by Dominique Wilkins, one of the most electric scorers of his time, although the words “pass” weren’t very high in his vocabulary. He matched Bird’s 30 ppg average in the regular season, but had half the assists and a third fewer rebounds. Atlanta had a good center in Kevin Willis and some height off the bench in Tree Rollins. And the key guard was a name quite familiar to Celtic fans—Doc Rivers joined with Randy Wittman in the Atlanta backcourt.
Boston took the first two games at home because they came out strong in the first quarter each time, winning the opening period by an average of 29-17. They shot in the high 50s percentage-wise both times. Parish was all over the glass with 14 rebounds each night. One area of concern—Bird was held to 16 points in Game 2. The series went south.
Atlanta kept Bird’s problems going in Sunday afternoon’s Game 3, as the Legend got 22, but shot only 5-for-18 from the floor. The Celts as a team shot less than 40 percent. Willis matched Parish board-for-board underneath and the home team again held serve. Game 4 was on a fast turnaround the next night. Both teams shot well and Bird got back on his game, scoring 30. But Wilkins hung 40 on the board and Rivers dished an astonishing 22 assists to key a 118-109 win that tied up the series.
The Celtics still had the homecourt edge in their back pocket and for Game 5, Parish had a 24/13 line, while Bird scored 22, grabbed nine rebounds and dished eight assists. But with a lead in the fourth quarter, the unthinkable happened. The Celts turned in a late meltdown that can only be understood by watching the way they blew their 11-point lead at the regulation in Friday night’s game of this year’s series. Or by watching any Red Sox game in 2012 after the seventh inning. Unlike 1987 there would be no “Bird steals the ball!” kind of moment to save the Celts from a home loss in Game 5. Atlanta scored 43 fourth-quarter points and took control of the series.
It was a Friday night in May when Atlanta had the opportunity to deliver an end to the Celtic dynasty. Wilkins was ready, with 35 points and 10 rebounds. Doc smelled the moment and scored 32. It wasn’t enough. With Ainge dishing 14 assists, and Bird/McHale combining for 49 points, the Celts somehow stole a 102-100 win and set up a Sunday afternoon battle in the Garden.
The Bird-Wilkins duel on May 22 is considered one of the great one-game battles in NBA playoff history. Wilkins won the scoring battle 47-34, but Bird got his points with ruthless efficiency, shooting 15-of-24. Rivers and Ainge went at each other in a battle to see who could find the open man better. Rivers had 18 assists, while Ainge had 10. But Boston shot 62 percent from the floor and held off the charge, 118-106.
Larry Legend and the veterans had extended the dynasty one more round, against a team who had 10 of its top 11 players under the age of 30. The dynasty would ultimately end in the conference finals against Detroit. But the Game 7 battle of Bird-Wilkins gave the 1980s Celts one last glorious hurrah.