One game passes time test for Dominique Wilkins
Wilkins, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last year, says he is still constantly quizzed about an epic playoff game against the Boston Celtics on May 22, 1988.
It was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in the Boston Garden and Wilkins and the Celtics’ Larry Bird engaged in an old-fashioned postseason shootout.
Wilkins ended with 47 points, while Bird had 34 as the Celtics beat Atlanta, 118-116 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals. Boston would then be eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals during a six-game series with Detroit.
In the fourth quarter of this Game 7 classic, with both teams staring at elimination, Wilkins and Bird couldn’t be stopped. Wilkins scored 16 points in the final period, while Bird topped that figure with 20 points, shooting 9 of 10 from the floor.
While Bird heated up in the fourth quarter, Wilkins remained hot all game, shooting 19 for 23 from the field.
“It was one of the greatest games ever played in my opinion, especially under the circumstance of the seventh game,” Wilkins said in a phone interview. “It was two great players who didn’t want to lose.”
Wilkins said he was guarded by Kevin McHale most of the game. On the defensive end, Wilkins had the unenviable assignment of guarding Bird, who had hit just 6 of 14 field goal attempts in the first three quarters.
“I guarded him the whole game and he is an amazing guy,” Wilkins said. “It was one of those games, especially in the fourth quarter when everything started to click for him.”
Wilkins was playing on such adrenaline, that it took a while for everything to sink in.
“It took me a day to come down off that loss,” he said. “I didn’t realize how physically exhausting that series was until a few days later.”
Wilkins has had higher scoring games. He twice scored 57 points in regular season games and 50 in a playoff win over Detroit in 1986.
“I had games where I scored more points, but not under those circumstances in a game that helped you advance to the next round,” Wilkins said. “It was the way game was played and who it was against, two great players going at it.”
Wilkins said he will always remember the response he received from the Celtics fans, who weren’t known for showing too much warmth toward the opposition.
“They gave me the most utmost respect,” he said. “One thing I can say about the Boston fans is that they are very knowledgeable basketball people and they actually cheered for me. After the game, they gave me a nice ovation and they give respect to players who leave it all on the floor.”
It’s interesting that so many people remember Wilkins for that one game, because he is also considered one of the most hellacious dunkers of all time, something else is known for. He was given the nickname “The Human Highlight Film.”
Yet there was much more to his game than rattling the rim. Wilkins averaged 24.8 points during his 15-year NBA career with five teams. He is most associated for his time with the Hawks. Wilkins made all nine of his All-Star appearances with Atlanta, earned one scoring title and two slam-dunk championships.
And while the dunk was a vital part of his arsenal, it frequently obscured his overall game.
“When you see highlights, you see high-wire slam dunks, but I scored over 26,000 points and not all were on dunks,” he said laughing. “I may have gotten one to two dunks a game, but they were often so dramatic that it looked like all I could do was dunk.”
Wilkins had plenty of ways to score.
“I had 15 different things in my arsenal,” he said. “Plus, guys didn’t let you walk in and dunk. I used the dunk as a tool of intimidation to deter them from blocking my shot when I went to the basket.”
The dunk wasn’t even his favorite play.
“My favorite play was spinning and going up on the wrong foot on a bank shot,” he said proudly.
Wilkins competed eight times in the postseason for the Hawks, appearing in 51 of his 56 playoff games with Atlanta. He averaged 25.4 points in the postseason.
Wilkins says that the last year has been especially special after his Hall of Fame induction. In fact, Wilkins is now the spokesman for the Hoop Hall Experience, a 30-city tour of that will bring the history of the Hall of Fame to the fans, beginning Nov. 2 in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“You don’t realize how important it is to be inducted into the Hall of Fame until you are here amongst your peers and being part of this family is an overwhelming feeling,” Wilkins said. “It immortalizes you.”
It shows that he is remembered for much more than one game or for being able to dunk the basketball, even though, those are the two most popular subjects that he is asked about from a career full of highlight-film plays.
Marc Narducci covers the NBA for the Philadelphia Inquirer and is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com
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