The Hawks, in ending a three-game losing streak, dressed the minimum eight players, and the hardy group stopped an amazing Boston streak. The Celtics had a 39-0 record this season in games in which they had the lead after three quarters.
The Celtics led, 80-79, and Larry Bird, who scored 34 points, sank the first basket of the fourth quarter. Wilkins then scored nine points, including four free throws on technical fouls, in a 13-2 spurt that put Atlanta in command, 92-84. After a Boston basket, the Hawks scored seven more points in a row to take a 99-86 lead with 6:03 left.
Because of injuries, the Hawks were missing starters Sly Williams and Glenn Rivers and reserves Cliff Levingston and Mike Glenn. All eight players who dressed scored at least six points, but it was Wilkins and Eddie Johnson (34 points and 15 assists) who led the assault on the Celtics.
It was a big win for the Hawks. In losing four of their previous six games, the Hawks saw what looked to be a comfortable lead in the bid for the last playoff berth in the East disintegrate. They lead Cleveland by 2 1/2 games.
Although Bird scored 30 or more for the eighth consecutive game, it was not one of his better games. He made 13 of 32 field goal attempts and, in 42 minutes, had only 5 rebounds and 4 assists.
"Beating a team of this caliber will give us a big lift for the rest of the season," said Johnson, following his best game of the season. "We needed something like this after what we've been through lately."
The Celtics were unhappy throughout with the officiating of Mike Mathis and Bill Oates. Bird was hit with the first technical and, two minutes later, assistant coach Jimmy Rodgers was given two technicals and ejected. Jones picked one up when Rodgers was chased.
"The walk to the foul line totally turned around the course of the game," Jones said.
Denver 141, Dallas 140--Mark Aguirre scored 46 points at Dallas, but he missed a free throw with 24 seconds left in regulation that would have given the Mavericks the victory.
As it was, the Nuggets, trailing by 23 points in the third quarter and by 15 going into the final quarter, won it in overtime on a shot by reserve guard Elston Turner that unnerved Coach Doug Moe.
Moe was upset because there were seven seconds left on the shot clock when Turner fired an 18-footer for the winning basket with eight seconds left in overtime.
The coach probably wanted Mike Evans, who scored a career-high 38 points and had made five three-point baskets, to take the last shot.
The Nuggets, who have won four in a row and nine of their last 10, lead the Midwest Division by 3 1/2 games.
New Jersey 100, Washington 98--Micheal Ray Richardson scored 32 points at Landover, Md., to lead the Nets to their third win in a row and put them over .500 for the first time this season.
The Bullets, losers of 10 of their last 13 games, missed six free throws in the closing minutes.
San Antonio 108, Detroit 98--Mike Mitchell scored 36 points and Artis Gilmore, returning from an ankle injury, scored 30 at Pontiac, Mich., to help the Spurs end a three-game losing streak.
Houston 119, Utah 115--Akeem Olajuwon had 26 points and 15 rebounds and Ralph Sampson had 29 points at Salt Lake City to lead the Rockets to victory.
Cleveland 111, Portland 103--World B. Free scored eight of his 29 points in the last two minutes at Portland to assure the surging Cavaliers their fifth consecutive win on the road.
The Cavaliers have won seven of their last nine, and they are 21-18 since starting the season by winning only two of their first 21.
Chicago 109, New York 104--Bernard King scored 41 points at Chicago, but he couldn't prevent the Knicks from losing for the 26th time in 30 road games.