Celtics add to their legend with dramatic comeback over Hawks
There was none of the usual joshing or banter as the players warmed up for the seventh and decisive game of the Eastern Conference semifinal series in Boston last Sunday. The tension was thick, the faces grim, the mood more that of the National Basketball Association championship than of a preliminary round. During the preceding week, the series between the Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks had taken on almost epic proportions, a drama that went to the identities of the two teams.Skip to next paragraph
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For three seasons, the Hawks have been the team about to be, loaded with eager young talent, led by a star, Dominique Wilkins, who yearly adds maturity to his brilliance. This season they faltered, causing some to wonder whether they would ever make it at all.
The Celtics were precisely the opposite, the veteran dynasty widely viewed as on its last legs. The previous Wednesday, it seemed the legs had given out. As expected, the Celtics had won the first two games at the Garden. But the victories were tentative, not the decisive thrashings Boston fans expect. Then the Hawks took two in Atlanta, bringing the teams back to Boston even-all.
The Celtics were depending on the Garden, with its banners and legends, to revive their fortunes. After all, Atlanta hadn't won there in 13 tries dating back to 1985. But the dike finally broke. The Hawks won, 112 to 104. The Celtics looked methodical and flat, with nothing in reserve. They couldn't hold back the surging young Hawks, who gained confidence with every basket.
With less than a minute to go, Boston down by nine, there were still flutters of hope. Maybe Larry could do it. He has done the impossible so many times, people almost expect it. But this one was beyond even Larry Bird.
Fans were stunned. But also not stunned. For two years now, they have been hearing footsteps. First Len Bias, the No. 1 draft choice expected to pick up Bird's mantle, died of a cocaine overdose the day after the Celtics chose him. Then Bill Walton had more foot problems, followed by Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. This season Parish and McHale were healthy. But wasn't everybody talking about how they're ``getting up there''?
``It's gonna take a miracle to win in Atlanta,'' said one fan, trudging toward the exit after that Game 5 loss. And in the locker room, reporters asked questions in hushed tones. Danny Ainge, the Celtics guard, looked ashen. McHale, normally upbeat and chatty, talked about a ``self-destruction mission.''
Dennis Johnson (``DJ'' to all in Boston), the Celtics' plucky guard, was unrepentent as usual, reminding reporters the series wasn't over yet. But in nearby Cambridge, the owner of a Chinese restaurant asked a patron if it was raining outside. The patron replied that it was.
``Raining tears,'' the owner said.
``What do you mean?''
``The Boston Celtics, my friend. It doesn't look good.''
But in Atlanta, the Celtics came out with a steely determination not seen in Boston for most of the season. They won 102-100, a bona fide thriller every bit as close as the score. That brought it back to Boston for Game 7.
During what is called in Boston the ``Bird Era,'' games at the Garden have become almost ritual tableaux. The outcome preordained, fans come to enjoy the show. But the crowd on Sunday was stomping and roaring as for an underdog, even breaking into the college chant, ``Let's Go Celtics, Let's Go.'' Grown men were dressed in Celtics sweat suits, and green knits were everywhere.