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Game 7 of the 1988 Eastern Conference is best remembered for a scoring duel between the Celtics’ Larry Bird and the Hawks’ Dominique Wilkins. The two players went shot-for-shot in an epic fourth quarter in what is considered one of the most entertaining personal duels in NBA history. Bird outscored Wilkins by 20 to 16 in the quarter, to help the Celtics win 118-116.
Build-up to the Bird-Wilkins Game 7 Duel
With many of the players on the Celtics’ storied roster now entering their career twilights, the second dynasty of the Celtics was beginning to fade. Many teams were beginning to come up in a bid to assume the soon-to-be vacated perch. The Hawks with their young roster led by Wilkins was one of the most promising teams in the league. When the Hawks and Celtics were matched up in the first round of the playoffs, it was like two teams at extreme ends of their stories.
The Celtics had opened up a 2-0 series lead by winning the first two games but the Hawks rallied to win the next three games to put them within one game of eliminating the Celtics. However, they lost narrowly in game 6 and in his characteristic trash talk, Bird goaded the Hawks for losing on that golden opportunity just before game seven.
At this point Bird was averaging 29 points per game and Wilkins, nicknamed “The Human Highlight Film” was averaging 25. The contrasts between the two players were glaring. Bird was known for his fleet footed trickery and shooting, while Wilkins possessed raw power though both attributes had proven effective at destroying defenses. One was a high spirited trash talker and the other a mild mannered giant, one wore Converse sneakers, the other wore Brooks.
The Celtics held an 84-82 lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter but Bird had been restricted to just 14 points, far behind Wilkins 31. With 10:26 left in the game, the two teams were tied at 86-86 and that is when the two stars hit turbo mode. According to Wilkins in a later interview, teammate Kevin Willis came over to him and said, “Don’t let that son of a gun score anymore man,” with Bird within earshot. At that point, Wilkins says that Bird’s eyes got big and he immediately knew that Bird had been goaded into his best form. That is when the shootout began.
For the rest of the quarter, it was like the rest of the players were not in the game. Larry would score and Wilkins would respond with a basket of his own and vice versa. At 5:59, the teams were level at 99-99 thanks largely to the Bird’s and Wilkin’s shootout. After that both players scored 11 points each but Bird made a decisive three pointer over Wilkins with 1:43 on the clock.
With one second left and the Hawks trailing by three points, Wilkins was at the line shooting free throws. He made the first one and then intentionally missed the second in the hope that the ball would fall to a teammate for a game tying layup but it was not to be as Boston’s Robert parish got the rebound. The buzzer sounded to guarantee the Celtics’ 118-116 victory. Wilkins had a game-high 47 points having shot 19-for-23 while Bird shooting 15-for-24 scored 34 points, albeit left his best for when it mattered most.
Aftermath of the Bird-Wilkins Game 7 Duel
In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics were eliminated by the Detroit Pistons in six games. The promising future that many had prophesied for the Hawks failed to materialize, culminating in the departure of Wilkins in 1992.
Between 1994 and 1995, he even turned out for the Celtics though by then Bird had retired two years earlier so they did not get to line up together. The shooting duel they had continues to live in fans memories and is considered one of the greatest games in the history of the NBA.