The great Milwaukee Bucks teams of the 1980’s never reached the Finals, but they had a real chance in 1983.
When looking back at the outstanding run of winning seasons put together by the Milwaukee Bucks under Don Nelson‘s guidance from the late 1970s through the 1980s, it’s easy to question why those teams who were dominant in the regular season could never get over the line when it mattered most.
In reality, the Bucks were one of three elite Eastern Conference teams during that period, and throughout a seven year spell of winning 50 games or more per season they only lost to two franchises in the post-season.
From 1979-80 to 1986-87, the Eastern Conference’s representative in the NBA Finals was one of the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers, with five and three appearances respectively.
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Outside of the 1960s, the Celtics have never had a decade of success that could match the 80s. With Larry Bird in his prime, and Kevin McHale and Robert Parish among his supporting cast, Boston picked up three championships and lost in two Finals in that time.
The Bucks lost to Boston in the Conference Finals in 1984 (4-1) and 1986 (4-0), as well as falling to the Celtics in a seven-game Conference Semi-Finals in 1987. Quite simply, for as good as the Bucks were, Boston was better.
It was the 76ers who the Bucks had their best battles with, even if often the contest went in Philadelphia’s favor.
Having finished off 60 and 55 win seasons in ’81 and ’82 with losses to the Sixers in hard fought semi-final series, when the Bucks swept the Celtics for a chance to play Philadelphia in the ’83 Conference Finals they had revenge on their minds.
In matching up with Philadelphia, the Bucks would come up against Julius Erving, who in spite of being past his prime at 32 was still one of the NBA’s very best players. Of course, adding an extra edge to proceedings was the fact that the Bucks had been one of the losers in the saga surrounding Erving’s draft rights years previously.
Alongside a declining Dr. J, Philadelphia also had a squad of talented young stars who were very much hitting their prime. Before Moses Malone would briefly play in Milwaukee at the end of his career he was one of the league’s most dominant centers with the 76ers, and in 1983 he was at the peak of his powers alongside teammates such as Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks.
The Bucks had their own mix of youth and experience heading into the series too. While the likes of Junior Bridgeman, Bob Lanier and Brian Winters were approaching the latter stages of their career, Marques Johnson was in his prime and Sidney Moncrief and Paul Pressey were really still only getting their footing.
As history shows it, the Bucks fell to the 76ers 4-1 in what on the surface appears to be a commanding loss. The reality is the series was much closer than that though.
Game 1 saw the Bucks go to Philadelphia and put in an outstanding performance, led by a 30-point showing from Marques Johnson. With the clock winding down and the game tied at 104, the ball was in Johnson’s hands with the Bucks having a chance to win. Unfortunately, a Sixers’ double team smothered the Buck and forced the game to overtime.
A cagey and low scoring overtime followed where both teams struggled to score. With under a minute remaining, Johnson went to the free throw line with a chance to put the Bucks ahead. In spite of having made 8-9 from the stripe in the game up to that point, he missed both freebies and the 76ers won by two.
Game 2 saw the Bucks trail for close to the full 48 minutes, as Johnson once again starred for Milwaukee (25 points and 11 rebounds). Down 10 heading into the fourth quarter the Bucks needed to rally, and they did. Still it wasn’t enough, and in spite of staying within a couple of possessions of the Sixers for both games in Philadelphia, the Bucks returned home in an 0-2 hole.
With the action turning to Milwaukee, the Bucks had to win Game 3 to have any real chance in the series. Thanks to a well-rounded performance with contributions from multiple key players, the Bucks held the lead at the end of each of the first three quarters.
A swell of pressure from the 76ers in the final six minutes of the fourth turned the tide though. As Malone and Erving combined for 51 points and 22 rebounds, the Sixers finished strong, outscoring Milwaukee by nine in the final period for an eight point win overall.
To the credit of the Bucks, they shook off that third straight disappointment to win Game 4. If they had closed all three games preceding that as the stronger team, that victory could have been the one to see them advance to the Finals.
When the series went back to Philadelphia, the 76ers closed it out in five games. They went on to defeat the Lakers in four games in the Finals, just as they had swept the Knicks in the semi-finals before their battle with the Bucks.
Prior to the start of the playoffs, when asked for a prediction of how things would go for his team, Moses Malone gave a simple reply:
"“Fo. Fo. Fo.”"
Thanks to the Bucks, it was four, five, four, but it could have been so much better for Milwaukee.
If there’s one moment that can be pinpointed as a real “what could have been” for the Bucks in the 80s, it would be this series. If Marques Johnson had made those two free throws in Game 1, who knows what would have happened from there.
Milwaukee went close, but not close enough. Again.