Here is our first installment of our look back at the 1988 second round playoff series between Larry Bird's Boston Celtics and Dominique Wilkins' Atlanta Hawks. A couple of things need to be noted before we dive into the recap. Atlanta had struggled somewhat closing out the regular season and needed all five games to dispatch Milwaukee in the first round. Three key Hawks missed time during the season because of injury. Kevin Willis had a knee injury, John Battle had a rare hepatitis infection, and Jon Koncak a leg injury. Battle was a big part of Atlanta's attack off the bench and the Hawks sorely missed him down the stretch of the regular season.
In its preview of the series, one of the first things mentioned on the broadcast was Atlanta's struggles down the stretch of the regular season and perceived chemistry issues on and off the court. I feel that the Hawks regression in terms of wins had more to do with the injuries I noted above. I have not found any quotes from any players or coaches that said this team had chemistry issues. True it had a superstar player that took a lot of shots on a young team so it is easy to see how the conclusion could be drawn. I have often wondered if the Hawks playing games on TBS added to the myth when announcer Rick Barry would bash Dominique for being selfish which I always thought was ironic coming from someone who was often described as a less than desirable teammate.
PG - Dennis Johnson
SG - Danny Ainge
SF - Larry Bird
PF - Kevin McHale
C - Robert Parrish
PG - Doc Rivers
SG - Randy Wittman
SF - Dominique Wilkins
PF - Kevin Willis
C - Tree Rollins
Two things jumped out at the start of this game. First was Boston announcer Tommy Heinsohn questioning Doc Rivers ability to make decisions as a point guard. It doesn't really have anything to do with this series but given how things eventually turn out I thought it was funny. Second, when these two teams played, Boston and Bird in particular, tried to take it at Dominique in the early going to force him to expend energy on the defensive end and hopefully take him out of his offensive rhythm. Nique opens this game guarding Bird who proceeds to run him off of every screen known to man. It is exhausting watching Nique try and chase Bird during the opening quarter and it is one of the biggest adjustments that Mike Fratello and Dominique had to make as this series went on.
Boston on the other hand opens the game with Kevin McHale guarding Wilkins, Robert Parrish on Kevin Willis, and Larry Bird resting against Tree Rollins. It works beautifully McHale plays off Wilkins and invites him to take jump shots while Bird continues to wear him down at the other end of the floor. This Atlanta team were really at their best in an uptempo style of game. A misconception is that Boston wasn't a great uptempo team. The Celtics possessed a devastating fast break thanks to all five guys in the starting lineup, even Robert Parrish, being quick enough to ignite the break off of a rebound and all were great passers of the basketball. Boston ran quite possibly the most intelligent fast break in the league. What set them apart was that they also had a devastatingly precision half court game.
The first quarter of Game 1 could not have started any worse for Atlanta. How bad was it? So bad that Atlanta trailed 38-23 by the time it was over, Mike Fratello was forced to call three first quarter timeouts, and Larry Bird set a Boston Garden Playoff record with 24 1st quarter points. The Celtics shot a sizzling 71 percent from the floor and a clearly frustrated Fratello yanked most of his starting lineup choosing to go with a lineup of Spud Webb and John Battle in the backcourt, Antoine Carr and Cliff Levingston at the forwards with Willis manning the center position. The move actually seemed to work despite the large deficit as Webb and Battle sparked Atlanta's full court defense.
Fratello replaced Willis with Scott Hastings to start the second quarter going with his entire 2nd team. Webb continued to play well and Atlanta immediately cut the Celtics lead to 38-29 and forced Celtics coach K.C. Jones to take a time out. The second unit's effort carried over as the starters came back and eventually Jones was forced to rest Bird midway through the quarter. Atlanta would close the half trailing 54-48 and was extremely fortunate given the big start to the game by Bird and the Celtics.
Boston's shooting would drop to 56 percent for the half while Atlanta connected on 41 percent. The Hawks were able to get back into the game by forcing 14 Celtics turnovers and by attacking the rim giving themselves more free throw opportunities. The Celtics out rebounded the Hawks 21-15 in the first half.
Bird finished the half with 27 points while Robert Parrish chipped in 10 points and eight rebounds. Doc Rivers led Atlanta at halftime with 12 points and six rebounds while Dominique had just seven.
The third quarter began much the same way the game did. Boston came out of the half hitting on six of their first seven shots while the Hawks started 2 for 10. The result was the Fratello had to burn two more time outs to try and slow down the Boston momentum. Kevin McHale wasn't quite as good as Bird in the first half but he took up the scoring load in the second half making eight straight shots at one point. Frustration sat in for Atlanta late in the 3rd as Kevin Willis issued a hard foul on McHale on a drive to the hoop that resulted in a little bit of a skirmish. Wilkins hit a three pointer at the third quarter horn to cut the Boston lead to 82-68. The basket was Wilkins' only points of the third quarter giving him 10 for the game.
Atlanta would yet again cut into the Boston lead during the fourth but the Celtics would never lose control of the game getting a much needed basket or a key turnover whenever they needed it. Dominique would finally get on track in the 4th quarter scoring 15 of his team high 25 in the period but wasn't much of a factor in the game. Atlanta fought to the very end with Fratello up off the bench the entire fourth quarter but the Hawks eventually fell 110-101. Bird finished with 38 points, five rebounds, and eight assists. Kevin McHale scored 21 of his 25 points in the 2nd half while Parrish finished with 22 points and 14 rebounds.
If Atlanta had to be happy about anything in the game it was the play of the second unit and of how they were able to crawl their way back into the game on multiple occasions. Boston put them on the ropes early in the first and third but due to their uptempo style and their full court defense, the Hawks were able to trim the lead back to single digits each time. That is an important theme as this series progressed.