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Hard to match that '80s show

The Celtics and Hawks had a memorable playoff series in 1988, highlighted by the theatrics of Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins. The Celtics and Hawks had a memorable playoff series in 1988, highlighted by the theatrics of Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins. (File/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter May
Globe Staff / April 20, 2008

Has it really been 20 years? It has. Or, to be more precise, 19 years, 11 months, and 32 days.

That's the last time the Celtics and Hawks met in the postseason and, well, they'll have a hard time replicating that one when their conference quarterfinal kicks off tonight at the TD Banknorth Garden. That was the Game 7 shootout between Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins that capped a memorable conference semifinal.

While it's been two decades since the Hawks and Celtics have met in the playoffs, the franchises were spring regulars in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Hawks were in St. Louis. They met four times in five years, all in the NBA Finals. They met twice in the early 1970s; John Havlicek holds the franchise postseason scoring record with a 54-point submission against Atlanta April 1, 1973. They also met thrice in the 1980s, in a three-gamer in 1983 (best remembered as the series in which Tree Rollins bit Danny Ainge on the finger) and two seven-gamers, including 1986, the last time the Celtics hoisted a banner in the Garden.

The Celtics have won eight of the nine playoff series between the franchises, the one loss coming in the 1958 NBA Finals, which remains the Hawks' only NBA championship. Atlanta has not even won a best-of-seven playoff series since 1970.

The two seven-game series between Boston and Atlanta in the 1980s were memorable. Doc Rivers, the current Celtics coach, was the starting point guard in Atlanta. Ainge, now Rivers's boss in Boston, started in the Celtics' backcourt.

The Hawks were presumed to be the Next Next Thing in the East with a lineup of young, explosive leapers led by the aforementioned Wilkins, but also including the likes of Kevin Willis, Antoine Carr, Cliff Levingston, and, in 1986, the leaper who stunned one and all, diminutive Spud Webb.

They played in the Omni, were coached by Mike Fratello, were overseen by Boston hater Stan Kasten, and felt destined to overtake the Celtics, who by 1988 were just trying to hang on.

In 1986, Wilkins won the NBA scoring title (Michael Jordan missed most of the season with a foot injury) and was runner-up to Bird for MVP honors. The Hawks were the second-youngest team in the NBA and still won 50 games, making Fratello the Coach of the Year and Kasten the Executive of the Year. But against this Celtics team, it was no contest. The Celtics won in five games, the only series they did not sweep coming out of the Eastern Conference.

What stands out from that series is the third quarter of the clinching Game 5. Ainge said he still watches it on tape every now and then and called the performance "the way basketball is supposed to be played."

The Celtics led, 66-55, at the half - ah, the good old days - and then proceeded to outscore Atlanta, 36-6, in the third quarter, including a 24-0 run over the final 5:17. There was one sequence in which a frustrated Rollins threw an inbounds pass at Ainge, who caught it, made a layup, then got the ball and gave it back to Rollins, who was still standing out of bounds. Final score: 132-99. End of series.

"All you can do is call timeouts," Fratello said. "The league doesn't let you make trades during games."

Two years later, the Celtics were deemed much more vulnerable. K.C. Jones had already agreed to step down after the playoffs and, once again, Boston and Atlanta found themselves in a second-round series.

The teams split the first four games (the Celtics were a so-so road team that year) and then Atlanta won Game 5 in Boston, helped in part by a huge basket by Rivers. Afterward, some nitwit Boston writer asked Fratello how he felt now that the series was all but over. Fratello nearly tore the writer's head off. He knew better.

Signs alluding to Game 6 being Jones's swan song hung in the Omni as the teams met May 20. The Celtics somehow prevailed, 102-100, with Ainge being a huge factor (15 of his 22 in the second half). That set up a Game 7 May 22, and anyone who was there, or watched it, will never forget the fabled fourth period back-and-forth between Wilkins and Bird.

The Celtics won, 118-116, in a game which the teams shot a combined 59 percent! Bird had 34 points, 20 coming in a fourth quarter in which he was 9 of 10 from the field. Wilkins had 47 points, 16 in the fourth period. Over one stretch of 99 seconds, the two scored on five straight possessions, with Wilkins scoring 6 points and Bird 4. Bird also is remembered for his famed drive and lefty scoop shot that gave the Celtics a 5-point lead with 26 seconds left.

The clock finally ran out, and the Hawks left knowing they'd been participants in an epic playoff game. You can't duplicate a classic like that one, but, for the Celtics (two years running) and the Hawks (eight years running), any playoff game will do at this point.

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