The 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics came down to a seventh game at Boston Garden. And while basketball is a team game, this one came down to an old-fashioned shootout between Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins and Boston's Larry Bird.
"It was like two gunfighters waiting to blink," recalled Celtics forward Kevin McHale. "There was one stretch that was as pure a form of basketball as you're ever going to see."
The game was tied 86-86 with 10:26 to play when the teams' respective stars took over. "They each put their team on their back and said, 'Let's go,'" said Hawks coach Mike Fratello.
Bird fired the first shot, a jumper with 10:03 to play, and went on to score nine points in a span of 1:58. But Atlanta stayed close and drew even again at 99-99 on a basket by Wilkins with 5:57 left.
Bird scored 11 points after that, including the go-ahead basket with 3:34 to play and a stunning three-pointer over Wilkins with 1:43 left. Wilkins matched Bird's 11 points during that stretch, but it was not enough. With his team down by two points with one second left, Wilkins intentionally missed the second of two free throws, but Boston's Robert Parish tipped the rebound to teammate Dennis Johnson as the buzzer sounded and the Celtics had a 118-116 victory.
Wilkins ended up with a game-high 47 points, shooting a brilliant 19-for-23 from the floor. But it was the Celtics who were left standing at the end thanks to Bird, who finished with 34 points on 15-for-24 from the field, 20 of those points coming in the fourth quarter.
"He wanted it," said Don Chaney, an assistant coach with the Hawks at the time but a former teammate of Bird's. "He wanted the ball and he came through. That's what superstars are made of."