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Yes, the Boston Celtics don’t have a Larry Bird on their roster. Dominique Wilkins isn’t with the Atlanta Hawks. But both teams have stars. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are arguably the best tandem in the NBA. Trae Young is capable of lighting it up on any given night.

The Celtics can’t let Young get hot. They need to put the Hawks away early. Boston has had a habit of playing down to the level of competition this year and can’t afford to do that when the teams meet for Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs Saturday. The last thing the Celtics need is a Bird vs. Wilkins-type showdown that happened during the postseason in 1988.

Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics outlasted Dominique Wilkins and the Atlanta Hawks in 1988

Atlanta Hawks star Dominique Wilkins passes off as Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird guards closely in the first quarter of a game at Boston Garden. | Getty Images.

Despite being an aging group in 1988, the Boston Celtics were fresh off their fourth straight NBA Finals appearance. The end of a dynasty that saw three NBA championships in six years was inevitable. Some predicted the Hawks would end that championship run in the 1988 conference semifinals.

It nearly happened.

The Celtics had homecourt advantage and held serve by winning the first two games of the series at the Boston Garden. The Hawks did the same, but then they stole Game 5 in Boston as seven-footer Kevin Willis dominated with 27 points and 14 points. The Hawks headed back to Atlanta looking to close out the series and end Boston’s reign in the East.

Fortunately for the Celtics, experience won out. Despite Wilkins’ game-high 35 points, the Celtics eked out a 102-100 victory to set up a Game 7 back in Boston.

“Guess y’all were here for a funeral,” Bird said after Game 6, per Sports Illustrated. “Well, there wasn’t one.”

He then all but guaranteed a Celtics in in the series finale.

“They had their chance,” he said. “They had a big chance. Now I think we’re going to play like this again, only we’ll be at home. The shots will be falling. I think Sunday will be a big win — for the Celtics.”

Bird and Wilkins put on a show in Game 7

Wilkins did all he could do to send the Hawks to the conference finals. He played 43 minutes and made 19 of 33 shots from the floor and connected on eight of nine from the line. Bird went for 34 points as the two stars went head-to-head down the stretch.

The big difference was Bird’s support system in this game. Kevn McHale was just as hot, going for 33 points.

“The fourth quarter was like two people standing at arm’s length and punching each other,” said McHale.

There was nothing more Wilkins could do, and he knew it.

“A lot of games you wonder what more you could have done,” said Wilkins, “but not today. I can honestly say I did everything I could. We all did.”

Today’s Celtics need to put the Hawks away early. They can’t let Atlanta’s big star get hot. Seeded second in the East, Boston is clearly the better team, but that hasn’t always mattered this year.

The Celtics have some ugly losses this season to far-inferior teams. It’s time for Boston to take charge and not let Atlanta hang around.

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