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NBA books: The NBA’s Greatest Season

Excerpt from When the Game Was War: The NBA’s Greatest Season by Rich Cohen, Random House (September 5, 2023). You can buy the book HERE

Boston had blown through the Knicks in the first round, then met the Atlanta Hawks just as the Hawks were hitting their stride. Detroit – whom the Celtics would face if they reached the conference finals – had to watch and wait.

Boston crushed Atlanta in Game 1 at Boston Garden, with the front line –  Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale – combining for 85 points. They did the same in Game 2. Then, on the way to Atlanta, seemingly every Celtic caught a cold. In addition to cortisone, the doctor was shooting players full of antibiotics. The ball looked like it weighed a hundred pounds in Bird’s hands at the Omni Coliseum in Game 3. He played forty minutes and led Boston with 22 points, but the numbers give the wrong impression—he belonged in bed. The Celtics, having sneezed themselves into a stupor, lost three out of the next four games, setting up a Game 7 in Boston Garden that some consider the greatest game ever played.

“The game started, and even though the crowd was crazy, I remember it being quiet,” Atlanta guard Tree Rollins said. “I could hear sneakers screeching on the floor. I could hear coaches screaming out plays. I could hear my teammates talking on offense and defense. That was the highest level of concentration I attained as a player.”

McHale scored 33 points that night. Doc Rivers collected 16 points and 18 assists. Danny Ainge hit two big 3s late. But Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins was the show.

“We were running downcourt, me, Bird, and Kevin Willis,” recalled Wilkins, who was shooting hoops behind his house in suburban Georgia as he told me this story decades later. “Kevin reaches across to me and says, ‘Don’t let that son of a gun score anymore, man.’ And I’m like, ‘Shut up. He can hear you!’ And I look over, and Bird’s eyes are like this big. I knew it was on after that. Those are the words that woke him up. That’s really when the shootout began.”

“My mindset in the playoffs was you play, see how the game is going, figure out what your team needs, and do that,” said Bird. “We were rolling early and I was just trying to feel out the game. Dominique was scoring and I just watched. Then, in the fourth, I got hot. That’s when Dominique and I started matching basket for basket.”

“Bird was hitting impossible shots,” said Willis. “Dominique, he was not going to be shown up, especially in a big game. So it became a show. Even though we were in the game, we were really just watching the show.”

“It was like HORSE,” said Atlanta forward Cliff Levingston. “Bird makes this shot off the glass. Dominique comes down – off the glass. Bird goes all net. Dominique goes all net. Larry gets a layup. Dominique gets a layup.

“Larry would tell you where he was going to shoot the ball, and how he was going to shoot it,” Levingston continued. “He would take you all over the floor, setting picks, coming back, and next thing you know, you look up and he’s on his favorite spot and you’re like, ‘Oh no!’ ”

The Lakers had gathered in Magic Johnson’s mansion in Bel Air to watch the game on TV. They were hooting and hollering every basket.

Byron Scott said Atlanta would win; Wilkins was just too hot. “No, no,” said Magic. “Don’t underestimate my boy Larry!”

Bird won the game and the series on the last shot: a 3-pointer taken a foot away from Atlanta’s bench.

Excerpt from When the Game Was War: The NBA’s Greatest Season by Rich Cohen, Random House (September 5, 2023). You can buy the book HERE


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