Publish Date: 03/10/2022
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster
By the mid-80s, the Milwaukee Bucks had managed to do almost the impossible. We have to go back a decade to understand how. On May 12th, 1974, The Boston Celtics would claim their 12th NBA championship in 17 years. They would beat the Bucks, 102-87, on the Bucks home court. This is significant in that it was the last game for the great Oscar Palmer Robertson. A year later, the other franchise pillar Kareem Abdul Jabbar would be traded away, as a full rebuild seemed to be in order. But it wouldn’t. For, a “knight in green and white” would arrive fresh from the NBA hardwood and make things function well for The Bucks. Amazingly, he had played in that seventh game as, of all things, a Boston Celtic. His name was Donald Arvid Nelson, but now his loyalties were tied to Milwaukee. The Buck literally stopped with Nellie.
Under Nelson, the Bucks would play better for a longer stretch than they did under Robertson/Abdul Jabbar. By 1979, the Bucks through 1985 would not have a single losing season. Led by a strong nucleus that included, Marques Johnson, Quinn Buckner, Junior Bridgeman, veteran Bob Lanier, and Brian Winters made them solid. With Sidney Moncrief, they were elite. Under Nelson, Moncrief became perhaps the finest all-around guard in the NBA, able to score and lock down the other team’s best perimeter player. With Johnson, they were a dynamic duo, always at near the top of the standings, with a record that improved yearly. In 1980, the Bucks returned to the Eastern Conference, playing there for the first time in 10 years. Though they remained elite, it would be their misfortune to rejoin the East having to face two monsters, in the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics.
As one might expect, it would be difficult to beat both at their best. But 1983 put the Bucks in a position to at least attempt this. Though the Bucks regressed( 51 wins down from 55), Nelson was Coach of the year for the first time. Meanwhile, Moncrief captured the very first Defensive Player of the Year Award. Moncrief and Johnson were in their prime, and a formidable one-two punch. In round 1, the Bucks would face the now dysfunctional Boston Celtics, which resulted in a 4 game sweep. Boston was incensed, while Nelson celebrated beating his former team. Philadelphia was next, but these 76ers were Gigantor, halfway through the first truly great playoff run. They would win the first three games, the Bucks would win game four. Finally, the 76ers closed them out in game 5. Amazingly, the Bucks would make a good argument that they had been the playoffs second-best team; These were the Sixers of “fo fo fo” (actually fo fi fo) of Moses Malone. No one else beat Philly, and so it was a minor accomplishment. But Nelson grew antsy. By now, Nelson was something of a relic and an innovator; The main focus had been on him as a coach(instead of his players, which made him a relic) while he was forever tinkering with his team.
Though he had Lanier, Nelson was the first coach to use “positionless basketball”. He played smaller lineups, and he had his combo guard/ forward Paul Pressey play “point forward”. But, if you can believe it, the Bucks calling card had been defense. Yes, once upon a time, Don Nelson’s teams were noted for their defensive play. The strategies, though, bought limited success. Once again, in 1984 the Bucks made the Eastern Conference Finals. The Sixers were home, so now it was Boston’s turn for a five-game victory. What was worse, for Nelson at least, was that Boston publicly stated that their win was not a revenge situation. This was the only series that Boston played in 1984 that did not feature a single fight, and the Celtics brushed off Nellie’s Bucks as an afterthought. Nelson, now decided that a change had to be made. He sent Johnson home west, along with Junior Bridgemann, and Harvey Catchings. They would acquire former DePaul star Terry Cummings along with Rickey Pierce and sharpshooter Craig Hodges.
1984-85 Milwaukee Bucks Coach: Don Nelson 59-23
Point Guard: Sidney Moncrief – 21.7 ppg, 5.4. Rebounds, 5.2 assists
Shooting Guard: Craig Hodges – 10.6 points 4.3 assists, 2.0 rebounds
Small Forward: Paul Pressey- 16. 1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists
Power Forward: Terry Cummings – 23.6 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists
Center: Alton Lister- 9.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists
Reserves: Mike Dunleavy, Rickey Pierce, Paul Mokeski, Charles Davis, David Thirdkill, Kevin Greavey, Randy Breuer
Strengths: With Johnson gone, the Bucks functioned as a collective unit with specific strengths. Now, Nelson went with Pressey to handle the ball more. With Pressey handling the ball, this freed up Cummings to play at a high level. He would average nearly 24 points, as he and Moncrief would play well together. The Bucks would improve by 9 games, and in some ways, the Bucks represented the 80s style of play with the current era. With Dunleavy and Craig Hodges, the Bucks quietly became among the earliest teams to use the 3 point shot as a weapon. They coupled this with Cummings sudden dominance; Also, they played the best defense in the league all year. Moreover, Boston and especially Philadelphia were already beginning to age; Meanwhile, the Bucks had only one starter(Moncrief) that was 27 years old. So, not only were they revolutionary, but they were also one of the league’s youngest teams. Nelson’s innovative approach had not gone unnoticed; He would win his 2nd coach of the year in 3 years. If you live in New Jersey check out this site!
Weaknesses: Experience, interior scoring, an early over-reliance on outside shooting. It’s a cliche. But, in the playoffs, the game slows. You must be able to produce easy scores inside. This is usually the difference between an also-ran and a perennial champion. The three champions of the age(Philadelphia, Boston, and the LA Lakers) easily possessed this ability. Not the Bucks, though. Their game was defense and transition, and eventually, you ran yourself to a brick wall. That had, in fact, been the difference in both the 1983 and 84 ECF. Now, with the departed Lanier, the Bucks used a “three-headed monster” of Paul Mokeski, Randy Breuer, and Alton Lister. All of these fine men were serviceable; They were nowhere as good as the competition that they would have to face. Nelson, though, apparently felt he could catch a break against his inevitable opposition. Or, perhaps he felt he could outcoach his way to an NBA Final. He was about to get his chance.
Playoffs: Eastern Conference QuarterFinal- Chicago BullsIn the opening match, the Bucks would face Central Division foe the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls had been a dysfunctional outfit; They had one bright spot, the magnificent rookie Michael Jordan. Jordan, though, was just nearing comfort with the spotlight of this magnitude. The Bucks, for now, had the quickness to match up with the great rookie. Though the Bucks had a 21 game advantage in this series, the games were pretty close(at least when you factor in the 21 game difference). The Bucks took the series in 4 games, and history was made. For one short series, Sidney Moncrief had been the best player on the court. The Bucks would advance, but never again would Jordan be outplayed for the duration of a series.
Eastern Conference SemiFinals: The Philadelphia 76ersThis series was the ultimate paradox. These two powerhouses would meet for the 3rd time in 4 years. But this year would be different. The Bucks would have a home-court advantage. These 76ers were both stronger but simultaneously weaker. In the 1984 draft, they would draft the magnificent rookie Charles Barkley. Barkley would play his way into a great starting line-up that featured the faded Julius Erving and the declining Moses Malone. Also, the Sixer’s own great guard Andrew Toney was now hurt, with his feet betraying him on a regular basis. But Malone was still the league’s best center, and the Bucks’ three centers were no match for him. The tone would be set in the opening game, as the Sixers cruised to an embarrassing 127-105 victory that was over with 3 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. Suddenly, Erving and Malone looked like their 1983 form, and the 76ers would leave the series with a 4-0 win. Nelson would have to adjust again. To be continued.