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Bob Ryan

Twenty years later, and still circling

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bob Ryan
Globe Staff / April 21, 2008

The famed Larry-Dominique shootout May 22, 1988, lives on in song and story in these here parts, and why not? The Celtics won.

Be assured that pro basketball doesn't get any better than it was on that glorious Sunday afternoon. Here was a 118-116 Game 7 in which the Celtics and Hawks combined for 59 percent shooting while turning the ball over a scant 15 times. The Celtics were able to overcome 47 points by Dominique Wilkins because Larry Bird scored 20 of his 34 points on 9-for-10 fourth-quarter shooting. Their little Gunfight at OK Corral duel in the fourth quarter, when Larry had 20 and 'Nique had 15 and in which they had one stretch of three consecutive possessions when each scored, never has been surpassed.

What people in Boston don't realize is just how utterly devastating that loss was to the Hawks. A victory that day would have put them in the Eastern Conference finals for the only time since the team relocated from St. Louis in 1968. It would have validated professional basketball in Atlanta in a way that, curiously, still never has happened.

It remains, frankly, the great what-if? in Atlanta sports history, or so it would seem.

"I don't know," says Washington Nationals president Stan Kasten, who was running the Hawks (and the Braves) back then. "Certainly, it was the closest we came, and I think we were good enough to go farther. Interestingly, I thought we were better the next year. We brought in Moses [Malone] and Reggie [Theus] and we won [52] games. But we lost in the playoffs to a Milwaukee team we had beaten six times in the regular season."

With all due respect, the current coach of the Celtics - and point guard for that Hawks team - is not buying it. To Doc Rivers, that game and that series was indeed Atlanta's chance to establish itself. The team might have won more games the following year, but that didn't make it a better ballclub, in his humble estimation.

"There is no doubt," he says. "That was our shot."

Not surprisingly, Rivers does not have fond memories of that particular Game 7.

"I have never watched the game in its entirety," he says "and until last year, when Danny [Ainge] showed me a stat sheet, I thought I had played poorly." Au contraire, mon ami.

The truth is that the 26-year-old Glenn "Doc" Rivers had a great series. He had 16 points and 18 assists in that Game 7, and the latter figure wasn't even his series high, that being a 22-assist game in Atlanta's Game 4 victory. But Rivers remembers one thing, and one thing only, about his performance in that wondrous Game 7.

"DJ stole the ball from me at the end of the third quarter," he points out.

He's right about that. Dennis Johnson executed one of those patented DJ poke checks to relieve Doc of the ball as the Hawks were holding for the last shot in what was then an 82-82 game. DJ's coast-to-coast excursion sent the Celtics into the final period ahead by 2, rather than the other way around.

That Atlanta team was a deep, athletic aggregation. The front line of Wilkins, Tree Rollins, and Kevin Willis was a tough matchup. The Hawks came off the bench with Cliff Levingston and Antoine Carr, a pair of skilled, dangerous veterans. Rivers and Randy Wittman were a formidable backcourt, and they were nicely complemented by Spud Webb and John Battle. It was a very nice team, well coached by Mike Fratello.

What will always pain the Hawks is that they had led the series, 3-2, when they took the fifth game by a 112-104 score. The Celtics had won 14 consecutive Game 5s at the Garden when tied at 2-2, which was a source of enormous organizational pride. That Atlanta victory made it three straight Hawk wins, signifying a clear momentum shift. "It's probably a feeling of embarrassment more than anything else," Bird explained.

"I remember a banner in the Omni for Game 6," Rivers says. "It said, 'Welcome To KC's Retirement Party,' " an allusion to K.C. Jones's announcement during the first-round Knicks series that he would be stepping down as coach. But the situation brought out the best in the Celtics. Ainge came up big with 22 points and 14 assists as Boston squeaked out a 102-100 triumph, setting the stage for Game 7.

According to Rivers, the Hawks, though disappointed, were not discouraged.

"We definitely thought we were going to win," he maintains.

Even without the Bird-Wilkins subplot in the fourth quarter, Game 7 was a classic. The combined 59 percent shooting and the 15 turnovers all happened under playoff defensive pressure. Kevin McHale had 33 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Wittman, now coach of Minnesota Timberwolves, shot 10 for 12. There was greatness all over the place, with the last word going to, well, you know who.

"In that fourth quarter," Rivers says, "he was Larry Bird."

Kasten and Co. decided the Hawks needed an overhaul. They unloaded Willis and Wittman and brought in Malone and Theus. "I don't think it was a good idea," says Rivers. "I don't think we needed to make many changes. All we needed was a tweak. The next year we won more games, but we lost in the first round. That was a chemistry lesson for me."

The Hawks never have been that close again. In the four times they advanced to the second round since then, they never came close to another Game 7. This is their first trip to the playoffs since 1999.

But it's more than that. For most of the past two decades, the Hawks have been a blah franchise, with limited local juice. They have just drifted along as a basically irrelevant outpost on the NBA trail, simply because they never have been able to grab the city by the throat and demand attention. A victory over the Celtics on that Sunday afternoon might have changed everything.

"I do think if we had won that series it would have made a difference," says Rivers.

It's 20 years down the road. A city awaits.

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