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Larry Bird took part in plenty of big games with the Boston Celtics. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer won three straight MVPs and captured three championships in his 13-year NBA career. He gutted out games against rival Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers, squaring off against them three times in the NBA Finals.

Bird once admitted he played in “one of the greatest games ever played in the history of the league.” It wasn’t against Johnson’s Lakers, nor was it during one of his championship seasons.

Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins squared off in an instant classic

The Boston Celtics looked to reach their fifth straight NBA Finals. They came up short against the Lakers in 1987 and sought revenge. They finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference at 57-25 and second to only the Lakers, who racked up 62 victories. It seemed they were on a crash course to meet in the championship round for the fourth time in the decade.

Boston made quick work of the New York Knicks in the first round, winning the best-of-five series in four games. Next up, the Atlanta Hawks, a team that finished 50-32 and tied for second place in the Central Division.

The Celtics won the first two games at home, but the Hawks, led by the talented Dominique Wilkins, strung together three straight wins, including a 112-104 win in Boston in Game 5. In that one, Kevin Willis took charge for Atlanta, scoring 27 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. Wilkins had 25 points.

The Hawks had done some talking after that Game 5 win, according to Bird. They had a chance to close things out in Game 6. Instead, the Celtics eked out a 102-100 victory to send the game back to Boston for a winner-take-all Game 7.

“When the game was over, I did some talking,” Bird wrote in his book Drive: The Story of My Life. “The Hawks had done some talking after beating us in the fifth game, and now it was my turn. I said they had “guaranteed” this and “guaranteed” that, but that they had blown their chance. When you can wrap it up at home, you should win. I said now that we’re going back to Boston and it was our turn, and we weren’t going to blow it.”

Bird and Wilkins battled it out in Game 7


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Bird and Wilkins came to play in Game 7 of the conference semifinals at Boston Garden. The two showed exactly why they were the leaders of their respective teams.

The Hawks hung around, trailing by a point at halftime. The game was tied 86-86 before Bird hit a jumper and scored nine points in a span of 1:58, according to The Hawks didn’t fold. Wilkins tied the game at 99-99 with 5:57 remaining.

Bird and Wilkins went at it down the stretch. Bird knocked down a three-pointer over Wilkins with 1:43 left, and the Celtics hung on for a 118-116 victory. Wilkins went 19-for-23 from the floor and finished with a game-high 47 points. Bird went for 34, 20 of them coming in the fourth quarter.

“I think I can safely say that, considering the stakes, the seventh game against Atlanta in 1988 was one of the greatest games ever played in the history of the league,” Bird wrote. “That’s a big statement, but I think I can back it up.

“There were only 42 possible defensive rebounds in the entire game. Why? because we shot 60 percent from the floor, and the Hawks shot 57 percent. There were only 15 turnovers between us. In the fourth quarter, each team scored on 17 of 22 possessions.

“If you think all this means the defenses weren’t very good, you couldn’t be more wrong. The defense was aggressive, both ways. It was just a high-level game from the beginning to end, and when it was over, I had more respect for the Hawks than I ever had before.”

Although the Celtics got past Wilkins and the Hawks, their run of four straight Finals berths ended when the Detroit Pistons knocked them out in the conference finals in six games.