The Atlanta Hawks' improbably successful 1985-86 NBA season came to an end with just less than five minutes to play in the third quarter of Game 5 of their NBA playoff series against the Celtics tonight at Boston Garden.
With his team already trailing by 18 points in what would be a crushing 132-99 defeat, Hawks forward Dominique Wilkins had the ball bounced off his hip and out of bounds by Celtics guard Danny Ainge after a double-team. Quickly getting the ball back in play, Ainge hit Larry Bird upcourt with a pass. Bird was double-teamed but found Kevin McHale streaking to the basket for an easy slam dunk to give the Celtics an 81-61 lead.
Less than two minutes later, the Hawks' spirit was broken. Following another slam by McHale, Atlanta center Tree Rollins took the ball out of the net, stepped behind the base line and threw it at McHale's head. Unfortunately, he missed badly, and the in-play basketball bounded aimlessly toward midcourt. There, Ainge picked it up, dribbled in a few steps and calmly sunk a three-point field goal to make the score 96-61.
Before the streak had ended, the Celtics' 66-55 halftime lead had been extended to 102-61. In the period's final 5:30, Boston had scored 24 consecutive points, sending chants of "Beat L.A., Beat L.A.," reverberating through the crowd of 14,890, the Celtics' 265th consecutive sellout.
That wasn't the only indignity that the Hawks would endure. For the period, they hit just two of 19 field goal attempts and scored just six points overall, an all-time NBA playoff low for a quarter, breaking a record of futility set by the Los Angeles Lakers in April 1972, when they could muster just eight points against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Perhaps even worse, when the Hawks' Jon Koncak scored the opening basket of the final period, the crowd cheered wildly, a derisive gesture that continued for the remainder of the game.
Boston forward Bird hit his first five shots from the field, scored 36 points and had 10 rebounds before retiring with 8:14 to play. McHale finished with 25 points.
Atlanta was led by Spud Webb with 15 points and eight assists. Wilkins, the NBA's scoring champion, was limited to 13 points.
"I've never seen anything like that, not in college and not in high school," said stunned Hawks assistant coach Brendan Suhr. "Then again, we didn't have to play the Celtics then either."
Actually, the Hawks, 50-32 during the regular season despite being the third-youngest team in the NBA, had their moments, never letting Boston pull away in the opening half because of a series of spectacular slam dunks by Wilkins, Kevin Willis and Cliff Levingston. But all that was so much flotsam in the wake of the Celtics' third quarter jet stream.
"It was just 'pow' and it never left," said Boston Coach K.C. Jones. "The momentum was there -- just go out and play good defense and get the ball, run the fast break and get a dunk on the other end."
That was nothing that the other 21 NBA teams hadn't experienced over the course of Boston's 67-15 regular season. And according to center Bill Walton, tonight's game was par for the course during the Celtics' 4-1 series victory.
"We played four excellent games and this one wasn't very different from the others," he said. "The thing was, tonight everything came together and we took away any chance of them making a run or comeback."
Not that Hawks Coach Mike Fratello didn't try. "I used substitutes, timeouts. There's nothing else I know of," he said. "What else do I do, start a fight?"
The coach actually got into a scuffle with a fan here during Game 2 of the series, but it didn't do any good -- the Celtics won, 119-108. Tonight, Atlanta forward Scott Hastings was ejected for legwhipping Boston reserve Greg Kite to the hallowed Garden floor.
By then, however, the outcome had been determined, primarily because of Bird. The two-time NBA most valuable player suffered through a five-for-19 shooting performance in Game 4 and in this morning's Boston Globe there was a chart listing his 10 all-time worst playoff shooting performances.
"I had a feeling Larry would have a good game tonight," said Walton.
So did the Hawks.
"Any other player in the league would have seen that and either fallen to pieces, into a deep depression or asked to be traded," said Suhr. "He comes out and perhaps has his greatest game ever. All Game 4 showed was that he can be almost human at times."
But Bird regarded his effort as just one part of the overall scheme of things.
"I thought we were really playing good defense," he said. "When we did that, things got on a roll.