Windmills & Tomahawks: Nine Chapters on Dominique Wilkins

Windmills & Tomahawks: Nine Chapters on Dominique Wilkins


Windmills & Tomahawks: Nine Chapters on Dominique Wilkins

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Excerpt from Windmills & Tomahawks: Nine Chapters on Dominique Wilkins by Jon Finkel

To paraphrase the great Doc Brown, signature games by NBA superstars are like bolts of lightning – you never know when or where they’re going to strike. And although Dominique Wilkins had plenty of signature achievements (dunk titles, a scoring title, all-star games, all-NBA selections, and more), as the postseason unfolded in 1988, he didn’t have that go-to, instantly memorable playoff performance that every transcendent NBA player tends to have.

These performances become more memorable the higher the stakes of the game. For instance, a monster Game 5 performance in the first round of the playoffs will be more memorable than a monster Game 1 performance in the first round, and so on. This means that every year in the NBA playoffs, there are only three opportunities in which the stakes can’t be higher in a series for both teams:

Game 7 in the conference semifinals.

Game 7 in the conference finals.

Game 7 in the NBA Finals.

Getting the chance to play in any of these three situations is like going through the trials to earn your NBA playoff superstar black belt: first degree, second degree, and third degree. There are very few NBA third-degree black belts. Oh, and there’s one more factor that can either raise or lower the potential for a history-making performance: are you facing a worthy opponent in your Game 7?

Having a clutch Game 7 against a decent team with a single all-star is one thing; having a clutch Game 7 against a squad bursting with hall of famers in the midst of a dynasty is another. It’s this latter scenario where our intrepid hero, Dominique Wilkins, found himself in the 1988 postseason.

After the fifty-win season in ’86, the Hawks lost to the Celtics in five games in the Conference Semifinals. The following year, Dominique led Atlanta to a franchise-record fifty-seven wins, but the team lost the Conference Semifinals in five games again, this time to the Pistons. In ’88, the Hawks had their third straight fifty-win season, and after beating the Bucks in round one (Dominique averaged 31 per game), they made their third straight Conference Semifinals, once again facing Boston.

The Celtics were the No. 1 overall seed in the east.

The Celtics won seven more regular-season games than Atlanta.

The Celtics were big-time favorites.

They had Larry Bird (hall of famer), Kevin McHale (hall of famer), Robert Parish (hall of famer), Dennis Johnson (hall of famer), Danny Ainge (all-star), and a young stud named Reggie Lewis on the bench. The same core group won NBA Championships in ’81, ’84, and ’86, lost to the Lakers in the ’87 Finals, and were Finals-ready again in ’88.

As for the Hawks, they had Dominique and a few nice players like Kevin Willis (one all-star nod), Doc Rivers (one all-star nod), and Spud Webb, but to put it mildly, they weren’t in the same class as the Celtics.

Unsurprisingly, the Hawks lost Game 1 at the Boston Garden 110-101. Then they lost Game 2 in the Garden 108-97.

This was not the position the Hawks wanted to be in. Being down 0-2 to the Celtics left them with very few options: win two in a row (not likely); split at home (hopefully), which would mean at least one elimination Game 5 in Boston; or (worst-case scenario) get swept.

The Hawks, as the Dylan Thomas poem advised, did not go gentle into that good night. They won a meat grinder of a battle in Game 3, 110-92, behind 25 points from Dominique and 13 assists from Spud Webb. The very next night, facing a pissed off Larry Bird (who dropped 30) in Game 4, Dominique put up a 40 spot, leading the Hawks to a win and tying the series at 2-2.

Both teams then traveled the 1,000 miles north to Boston for Game 5. From the outset, you could tell that “The Chief” Robert Parish was angry (and you don’t want The Chief to be angry). He scored 24 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Bird had 22, McHale had 19, and Dennis Johnson had 20. The Celtics put the full weight of their home court advantage on Atlanta and led 77-69 after three quarters.

Making matters worse for the Hawks, Wilkins was having a horrific night. He’d gotten off to a 5-for-19 start from the floor and was completely out of sync, dragging his team down with him. Sensing a tipping point, coach Mike Fratello sat Wilkins to give him time to refocus.

“I missed my first couple of shots, but I was still feeling pretty good,” Wilkins said after the game. “But then I missed lay-up after lay-up after jump shot.”

For much of the third quarter and the start of the fourth, Wilkins sat and waited. And waited. And waited some more. His teammates were playing hard without him and were hanging on, chipping away slowly at Boston’s lead.

But they were tired. Both Webb and Rivers had been chasing Ainge and Dennis Johnson all night. Fratello, who had been pumping up ’Nique up on the bench the whole time—“We need you to close the game, Dominique. Get your rest. We need you, big man” –  decided to get radical.

Atlanta Hawks forward Dominique Wilkins dunks as Boston Celtics forward Larry Bird, left, looks on. (AP Photo)

With 10:41 left in the game and the Hawks down by eight, he inserted Dominique back into the game –  as a guard.

“We probably hadn’t done that since early in the season,” Wilkins said. “We do it in practice sometimes. Somebody gets hurt, I move to guard.”

It was a bold, unique strategy that instantly paid off. He slowed down DJ; he got the offense going, dropping dimes like a point guard. First the deficit was six. Then it was three. Then they pulled ahead.

’Nique was hitting free throws. He hit a three-pointer. He distributed. It was a hoops awakening. Kevin Willis scored 27 points and grabbed 14 boards, and Dominique worked his way back from a tough start to finish with 25 points, as the Hawks outscored Boston 43-27 in the fourth quarter—in the Garden—to steal Game 5.

Wrote Ian Thomsen of the Boston Globe, “…you might have been watching the blossoming of a career. No longer forcing his talents with insane churning drives, Dominique Wilkins had instead assisted on more baskets (3) than he had scored (2) while converting a fourth-quarter deficit into what could be the biggest victory in his city’s history, 112-104, over the Celtics.”

“We got one game left,” Wilkins said in the locker room. “We can’t celebrate yet.”

Forget about the proverbial tables turning – they’d been put in zero G, spun around, flipped, and slammed to the ground upside down. Not only were the Hawks not dead after going down 0-2, they were going back home to the Omni up 3-2 and on a three-game winning streak.

This was it.

This was the chance the Hawks had been waiting for.

They had momentum. They had home court. They had ’Nique. All they needed to do was win at home and they’d move on to the Eastern Conference Finals.

But the Celtics were grizzled vets who had been through wars. They were scarred and battle tested and used to fighting with their backs against the wall.

Being on the road? Who cares?

A three-game losing streak in a seven-game series? Whatever.

All this to say that Game 6 was gut-wrenching for the Hawks.

Despite big performances by Dominique Wilkins (35 points, 10 rebounds) and Doc Rivers (32 points on 10-of-16 shooting), the rest of the starters—Kevin Willis, Tree Rollins, and Randy Wittman—combined for a measly 12 points. Cliff Levingston, Spud Webb, and Antoine Carr had only 13 off the bench. On paper, it was a disaster.

And yet, the game was close.

Extremely close.

In fact, it was right there. The game was in the Hawks’ grasp the whole fourth quarter. If only a few bounces of the ball… a few just-missed buckets… a few rim rattlers had gone their way, things would have been different.

The final seconds of the game were a microcosm of the night for the Hawks. Down 102-100 in the closing seconds, Levingston got off a potentially game-tying left-handed lay-up that clanged off the rim as time expired. Like I said, it was right there.

Dominique was devastated, but he knew they needed to put the disappointment behind them as quickly as possible.

“Sure, this is a letdown,” he said. “But we’ll come back. We just have to remember to do the things we did before. If we play with the same intensity we’ll be alright.”

His counterpart on the Celtics, Larry Bird, was licking his chops. Never one to miss a chance to talk shit and get into his opponent’s head, Larry Legend decided to lay it on thick. Rather than worry about bulletin board material, he specifically wanted the Hawks to know they blew it.

“They had their chance,” Bird said. “They had a big chance. They had their fans all into it. They were real confident, and we’ve been sitting around taking a lot of flak. Now, they’ve let us back into it. I think we’re going to play like this again, only we’ll be at home. They might as well forget it. They’ve got no chance. I think Sunday’s going to be a big win for the Celtics.”

And that’s how Larry layeth the smacketh down. He had momentum on his side, and he had history on his side. The Celtics had never lost a series when leading 2-0 (they were 34-0), and the Hawks had never won a series after going down 0-2 (they were 0-10). As a franchise, the Boston Celtics were 16-19 in Game 7s, having lost only twice on their home floor. Bird did not believe they were about to lose a third time.

To read about the epic Bird vs. Dominique duel in Game 7 buy Jon Finkel’s new digital biography “Windmills & Tomahawks: Nine Chapters on Dominique Wilkins”.

Buy Windmills & Tomahawks on Amazon here.

Or buy the PDF on Gumroad here.

Jon Finkel’s books have been endorsed by everyone from Spike Lee and Kevin Durant to Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Cuban. His most recent books are 1996: A Biography and Hoops Heist: Seattle, the Sonics and How a Stolen Team’s Legacy Gave Rise to the NBA’s Secret Empire. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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