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After winning the NBA title in 1981, the Boston Celtics hit a little bit of a lull. In 1982, the Philadelphia 76ers outlasted the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games. The following season, Boston saw its win total dip from 63 victories to 56.

The Celtics couldn’t find a groove. In the first round of playoffs — a best-of-three series against the Atlanta Hawks — Boston was tested again, this time by a rookie named Dominique Wilkins. In the rubber match between the teams, Celtics star Larry Bird knew he had to take control and took some shots at the Atlanta rookie.

Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics had some struggles during the 1982-83 season

Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks defends Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics during an NBA basketball game circa 1988 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

Something wasn’t right with the Boston Celtics during the 1982-83 season. They weren’t clicking, and plenty of the blame fell on head coach Bill Fitch. Some of the Celtics players had a few choice words for their coach.

“The man has a lot of good things to say, he just has some awful ways of saying them,” said one Celtics player during the ’83 playoffs, per Sports Illustrated. “You can only call someone dumb or stupid for so long.”

Another one said, “Everyone rebels in his own little way. I can’t get into someone yelling about why I didn’t get over a double pick. I wonder if someone in a normal business gets yelled at for not getting over to the Xerox machine the right way.”

Bird admitted there were plenty of lineup changes during the season that it was tough for the players to get in a rhythm.

“We never really got a string going,” Bird said then. “It seemed like we’d win four, lose two, win four, lose two. There were so many changes in the lineup that there were times when we didn’t move the ball around like in the past; the flow and timing were a step behind.”

Boston finished the season 56-26, nine games behind the Sixers in the Atlantic Division. The Celtics found themselves in a first-round matchup with the Hawks, and that didn’t go smoothly either.

Bird took his shots at Wilkins in a do-or-die Game 3

The Celtics hoped to get off to a fresh start when the postseason rolled around. They matched up with the Hawks and their talented rookie, Wilkins.

After pulling out a 103-95 victory at home in Game 1, Boston dug itself a serious early hole in Game 2 and trailed 55-42 at halftime. The Celtics battled back to make a game of it but came up short in a 95-93 loss. Wilkins had 18 in the game after scoring 21 in the opener.

With the season on the line, Bird took charge in Game 3, and it came at the expense of Wilkins.

The Celtics star went for 10 points in the first quarter alone. He also was assigned to guard Wilkins. Bird finished the game with 26 points, nine assists, and nine rebounds. Wilkins made one field goal and finished with eight points, one assist, and three rebounds. Boston won 98-79.

“I took him completely out of his game, which is what I set out to do,” Bird said then.

During the third quarter, the teams found themselves in the middle of a bench-clearing melee. Bird abused the young Wilkins even more during that incident.

“I told him to go back to the bench and sit down and that I hoped he had a nice summer,” Bird said. “He’s just a rookie, so you got to take your shots wherever you can get ’em.”

Although Bird and the Celtics advanced, they joined Wilkins at home four games later as they were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the next round.


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