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Celtics add to their legend with dramatic comeback over Hawks

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The Celtics started out tense. Bird missed a couple of easy shots. At the other end, Wilkins and Glenn (Doc) Rivers, the Hawks' fine point guard, were tossing in baskets with alarming ease. Whenever one team started a run, the other closed the door. And the tension grew.

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There have been many such playoff dramas throughout the Bird era - the grueling series with Philadelphia in 1981, for example. But then, the Celtics were the upstart team with time on their side. Now, it was the other way.

The video scoreboard kept flashing statistics such as the Celtics' record in seventh games (16-3) as though to enlist history in the cause. But history stayed put. At halftime it was 59-58 Celtics. This one was going to the wire. Each player was performing at peak. McHale had 21 points and 9 rebounds at the half. Atlanta's Randy Wittman was a torrid 7 for 9. Parish was 5 for 7.

When the Celtics play Detroit, their other main Eastern rival, tight games like this often give rise to ugliness. But Sunday something very different happened. This emotional roller coaster of a series had bestirred mutual respect. The game ground finer as it progressed. Each basket on one side pushed the other to greater effort. Then in the fourth quarter, Bird and Wilkins took the game to the finest distillation of basketball artistry.

Bird had played a mediocre (for him) game to this point, scoring only 14 points and making some bad passes. The Hawks are a meticulously coached team, and they seemed to smell out his favorite passing routes. But in the fourth, Larry got that look in his eye that always spells trouble for the opposition. Shot after shot - an unbelievable lefty runner, a clutch three-pointer that brought down the house - poured in.

But Wilkins answered Bird shot for shot. Wilkins has been criticized in the past for trying to do too much. But Sunday he showed the heart of a lion, hitting stupendous bank shots when there was no margin for error. Bird got 20 in the period, Wilkins 16. One Celtics reserve described it as ``watching Mt. Olympus.'' Johnny Most, the Celtics' perfervid radio voice, was beside himself.

If it is possible to say no team lost a game, this was that game. The Celtics led 118-116 when the buzzer finally sounded, meaning it is they who go on to play Detroit for the Eastern title, and perhaps another championship series matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers. But players and spectators alike felt it was a privelege simply to have been a part of this event.

The congratulations the Hawks offered the Celtics were genuine. Boston fans gave Rivers a standing ovation when he fouled out. On a sports call-in show a day later, one fan called him ``as gracious in defeat as in victory.'' The fervently pro-Celtic Globe called Wilkins, in a headline, ``simply spectacular.''

Each team, moreover, achieved something important. The Hawks showed that they are nearing the championship level. With only one player over 30, they will come this way again. The Celtics proved that, when they want it badly enough, they can still run with the young. Maybe they needed a good scare. A bright spot, too, was the play of Reggie Lewis, the rookie, whose quickness and poise offer hope for the uncertain years after Bird.

The Hawks have established themselves as the city's favorite rival. Had they won, it's a safe bet what cries would have risen to the Garden rafters: ``BEAT DETROIT. BEAT L.A.''