Larry Bird
Larry Bird missed only one shot in the final period, shooting 9-10 from the field.
David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated

Nique-Bird: An Oral History | Page 3

 

Nique vs. Bird: An Oral History of the NBA's Greatest Playoff Duel

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THE DUEL

The game was a back-and-forth affair through three quarters, with rarely a lead of more than a possession or two for either side. Entering the fourth quarter, the Celtics led by two, 84-82. Wilkins had a game-high 31 points, while Bird had a relatively quiet 14. That was all about to change.

Bird: When the game started everything was close. My mindset in the playoffs was that you play, see how the game’s going, what your teams need you to do the most. Early on in the game we were rolling along there and I was just trying to feel out the game, make plays, and do what I needed to do to advance. Dominique had scored a lot of points and I just felt the game happening. In the fourth quarter I got hot, made some plays, made some shots. We were matching basket for basket. You could tell it was going to be close because of the way they were playing.

Wilkins: We were running down the court -- me, Bird, and Kevin Willis. Kevin reached across me and said “Don’t let that son of a gun score anymore man.” I’m like what are you doing? Bird’s eyes got like this big. I knew it was going to be on then. It just woke him up. That’s where the great shootout began.

Kevin Willis: Bird started hitting shots that were nearly impossible to make, but he was making them. You know Dominique, he is not going to be shown up, especially in a big game down the stretch like that. It became a show for us. Even though we were in the game it was like, wow. Who’s going to miss?

Levingston: It was almost like a game of HORSE. Bird makes this shot, off the glass.  Dominique comes down, off the glass. Larry goes down, all net.  Dominique goes down, all net. Larry gets a layup, Dominique gets a layup.  This was basically full court one-on-one, with a few guys out there to pass the ball and get out of the way. 

Wilkins: Bird had guarded me that whole series, but not in that game. I think they put him on Kevin Willis or someone. But I had to chase him on the other end.

Rivers: I don’t think either one of them took easy shots. You could categorize half their makes as bad shots that went in. That’s what was so impressive about it. ‘Nique had one that was just an impossible shot. It was a bank shot that you shouldn’t take, you can’t take, and yet he took it and made it. It got to the point they were looking for those shots, they were trying to take those shots, and making them all.

Fratello: We knew we wanted to get the ball into Dominique’s hands because he was on such a roll, just like Boston wanted to get it to Larry because he had it going. If you threw it to Dominique you got an assist that night. I could have got one from the bench passing it to him he was so hot.

Heinsohn: It just was a great experience to watch each one trying to dominate the other. I’d seen guys score 60, but never matched by somebody else. This was a game of will power between these two guys. This was not coaches designing plays, it was “I’m taking you and I’m gonna kick your butt.”

Spud Webb (Hawks backup guard): Dominique (usually) didn’t play well against Kevin McHale because his arms were so long, but that game there was nothing that McHale could do. And there was nothing we could do with Larry Bird.

Bill Walton (Celtics backup center): Dominique Wilkins was truly one of the unstoppable forces in the history of basketball. We referred to him as “Dom,” as in Dom Perignon, the fine champagne. We couldn't stop him, so Larry said “Well, we will just have to outscore him,” and he did.

Ryan: Bird had one great shot that was going right to left, and he stumbled and threw it up and they fouled him and the ball banked in, a left-hander thing from down the middle for a three-point play. That was just pure luck. 

Levingston: That was the thing with Boston Garden. There is no way that shot is supposed to go in. How did that shot get up there to go in the basket?  It was just so unreal that things like that happened in that building. 

Late in the game, Larry Bird hit what appeared to be the final dagger, a three from the corner to make it 112-105, giving the Celtics their largest lead of the game.

Webb: That three he hit in front of our bench, was just ... it looked good when it left his hand.

Rivers: He damn near fell into our bench. We were just shaking our heads like, wow.

Ryan: This was a team that Bird dropped 60 on in ‘85, in New Orleans.  They had seen quite the best of Larry over the years.

Wilkins: I remember the game where he scored 60 against us. He shot a three with his left hand. With his left! That’s how hot he was. You got to be fundamentally sound to do that.

Levingston: I caught a few of Larry Bird’s 50-point games. He is the second-best player I ever played against behind Michael. He would tell you where he was going to shoot the ball and how he was going to shoot it. He would take you all over the place, setting picks, coming back and the next thing you look up and he is shooting from that spot and you are like “Oh no.”

Holman: It was everything that people say it was. We probably didn’t all realize it, even at the time, at the moment, how great a game it was going to become and go down in the history books.

Paxson: Being there, it wasn’t like this is a historic epic battle, it was like hey, I hope Larry keeps scoring and they keep missing so we can win.

Wilkins: Everybody talks about the shootout Bird and myself had, but you had a lot of people who had great games. Randy Wittman had 22 points. Doc Rivers had 16 with 18 assists in that game. Kevin McHale had 33. People don’t even talk about that.

Randy Wittman (Hawks shooting guard): That was one of my better games. I was 11 for 13 or something of that nature. As I told ‘Nique, he didn’t give me the ball enough shooting that percentage. Then Fratello traded me shortly after the season. So that was the last time I wanted to go 11 for 13, I guess.

Battle: Everyone on the floor had a good game. It was so contagious to be around such greatness. You were watching them not miss and you were going to start to miss? Wasn’t going to happen. It was leadership at its best, Bird pushed his team to be good and Wilkins pushed his team.  They asked everybody, without a word, to be the best that night.

NEXT: WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN