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On This Date May 22, 1988: Bird vs Wilkins

The Boston Celtics survive a seven-game battle against the Atlanta Hawks, winning Game 7 at Boston Garden 118-116. Both games were tight as they took Game 6 at the Omni 102-100. In Game 7, the Celtics needed to overcome a 47-point game from Dominque Wilkins, as Larry Bird scored 34, and Kevin McHale had 33. The Celtics had to win the series' final two games to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

 The Boston Celtics dynasty was in its twilight. Two years after winning their 16th championship, the Celtics showed signs of age as they posted a record of 57-25, led by coach K.C. Jones. Boston had lost the NBA Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1987 and no longer had the depth they enjoyed when they won two titles in three years. In the first round of the playoffs, the Celtics beat the New York Knicks in four games as they were looking towards a showdown with the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Atlanta Hawks, coached by Mike Fratello, were a team on the rise, a high-flying team that released a music video calling themselves Atlanta’s Air Force as they finished 50-32 on the season. The Hawks bounced the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round to set up their showdown with the Celtics.

 The series started in Boston, with the Celtics beating the Hawks 110-101 at the Garden. Larry Bird led the way for Boston with a game-high 38 points as Kevin McHale followed up with 25 points. Dominique Wilkins had 25 to lead the way for Atlanta. Kevin McHale was the big man in Game 2, scoring 32 points as the Celtics won 108-97.

As the series shifted to Atlanta’s Omni Arena, the Atlanta Hawks, looking to get back in the series, got 25 points from Dominique Wilkins and 23 points from Kevin Willis and won 110-92. The Celtics got 32 points from Larry Bird in Game 4, but Wilkins scored 40, while Spud Webb had 17 points off the bench to lead Atlanta to a 118-109 victory to even the series at two games apiece. Back in Boston in Game 5, the Celtics hoped to regain the series lead. Through three quarters, the Celtics were in control leading, holding a 77-69 lead. In the fourth quarter, the Hawks scored 43 points, as Kevin Willis led all scorers with 27 points. The Hawks would win the game 112-104 to take a 3-2 series lead.

Down 3-2, the Celtics faced elimination on the road in Game 6. Domonique Wilkins and Doc Rivers did all they could to end the Celtics' season, scoring 35 and 32 points, respectively. However, no other players reach double figures. The Celtics meanwhile got 26 points from Kevin McHale, 23 points from Larry Bird, and 22 points and 15 assists from Danny Ainge to win the game 102-100, as Cliff Levingston missed a chance to tie the game at the end of regulation. Following the game, Larry Bird would guarantee a victory in Game 7.

Game 7 at Boston Garden would set up a matchup with the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. A matchup that had been anticipated against the Celtics since their classic seven-game battle in 1987. Game 7 would be a classic back-and-forth battle as Larry Bird dueled one and one with Dominique Wilkins. Wilkins was the game’s leading scorer with 47 points. Larry Bird meanwhile had 20 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Celtics with 34, as McHale added 33 points to lead the Celtics to a 118-116 win to survive the series and advance.

 The Celtics would fall in the Eastern Conference finals, losing to the Detroit Pistons in six games. They would not reach the Conference Finals again until 20002.