Kevin McHale: “LeBron going against Jimmy reminds me of Larry vs. ‘Nique clashes”

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The epic standoff between LeBron James and Jimmy Butler in Game 5 of the NBA Finals has already secured its place in the league history, and the memories will be sweeter for the Miami star who carried his team to victory, extending the Heat’s season by at least one more game.

When almost everyone else on the floor “ran out of gas”, the two superstars kept going, trading key baskets in the clutch and powering their teams toward the finish line. As the game reached its climax, it all came down to one crucial play. As three Miami defenders swooped in on him near the baseline, an airborne James still managed to throw an improbable pass back to the perimeter, finding Danny Green. It was a great look, but the Lakers swingman missed an open three-pointer. The L.A. juggernaut’s seventeenth title went away with it as Tyler Herro sealed Miami’s victory with a couple of free throws.

Moments earlier, it was the indefatigable Butler who went to the charity stripe, and coolly knocked down four consecutive free throws to help Miami regain a one-point lead. In his night to remember, Butler became the first player in NBA history to post at least 35 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and five steals in a Finals game.

As the Lakers’ other superstar Anthony Davis struggled through parts of Game 5 with an ankle injury, the James vs. Butler battle became the focal point, evoking memories of similar superstar faceoffs in the past.

Asked by NBA Gametime’s Kristen Ledlow if he could remember two stars going head to head in the manner of James and Butler Friday, NBA Hall of Famer and three-time champion Kevin McHale was quick to reply.     

“Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins went crazy. It wasn’t even the Finals, I remember that well because I was guarding Dominique and he was going crazy,” said McHale.

The NBA great didn’t refer to any game in particular, but the Celtics-Hawks playoffs rivalry in the 1980s featured plenty where Bird and Wilkins stole the limelight. The one that had the biggest weight, though, was definitely Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in the 1987/88 season.

The decider was played in Boston, and the Celtics prevailed by a narrow margin, 118-116. On the Hawks’ final possession, Wilkins was fouled as his team trailed by three, so he made the first free throw and deliberately missed the second. However, the Celtics secured the rebound and dashed Atlanta’s hopes of forcing an overtime.

Wilkins spent 43 minutes on the floor, and finished the game with 47 points (19-33 from the field), five rebounds and three assists. Bird capped his performance with 34 points, and added six assists, four rebounds, a steal, and a block. He played 47 minutes, made 15 of his 24 shots from the field, and also committed four turnovers. Bird exploded in the fourth quarter, scoring 20 points, and Wilkins answered with 12.

“When you look at the degree of difficulty of some of the shots they made, it was remarkable,” Doc Rivers, the Atlanta Hawks point guard in that series, told NBC Sports in May 2019.

Another former Celtics great, Tom Heinsohn, who worked Game 7 as CBS analyst, was even more specific describing the qualities of the two superstars.

“You are totally defenseless against the great player that knows how to use his own willpower. ‘You are not going to beat me!’ – and that’s what each one was saying,” Heinsohn said.

Boston eventually lost to the Detroit Pistons in six games in the Eastern Conference finals, and the L.A. Lakers defeated the Pistons to claim the title. They were the first team to win back-to-back championships since the Celtics had done it in 1968-1969.