Milwaukee Bucks: Getting to know the 1980-81 team

BOSTON - 1981: Head coach Don Nelson of the Milwaukee Bucks looks on during a game against the Boston Celtics played in 1981 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1981 NBAE (Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images)
BOSTON - 1981: Head coach Don Nelson of the Milwaukee Bucks looks on during a game against the Boston Celtics played in 1981 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 1981 NBAE (Photo by Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images) /

With an incredibly balanced attack assembled throughout their roster, the Milwaukee Bucks stormed their way to a 60-win season in the 1980-81 season before it all came to an untimely end in the postseason.

Entering the 1980-81 season, the Milwaukee Bucks were a team brimming with tons of potential.

They had a bonafide superstar in Marques Johnson, an up-and-coming talent in Sidney Moncrief, integral role players ranging from Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters and Quinn Buckner, and one of the brightest coaching minds in Don Nelson putting the pieces in place on the sidelines.

Along with that, veteran big man Bob Lanier, who was acquired via trade from the Detroit Pistons midway through the previous year, had fully settled into his new surroundings in Milwaukee. Lanier’s presence, in particular, had galvanized the Bucks upon his arrival as Nelson noted to David DuPree of the Washington Post during the Bucks’ Western Conference Semifinals series with the Seattle Supersonics in the 1980 NBA Playoffs:

"“I guess I underestimated the value of having an old veteran on the team,” said Bucks Coach Don Nelson. “I didn’t realize that until Bob got here.”"

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After tallying 49 wins and taking the Sonics to seven games before falling to a crushing 98-94 Game 7 defeat, the Bucks were looking to take their rise to the next level for the 1980-81 season.

Despite a brief stumble coming out of the gate, the Bucks followed on their aspirations in the early part of that season, seeing that they hit 20-win mark by the end of November.

Eventually, the Bucks had outpaced most of their Eastern Conference counterparts and rose to the conference’s top tier consisting of a Larry Bird and Robert Parrish-led Boston Celtics team, and the Philadelphia 76ers spearheaded by superstar Julius Erving. While the Bucks may have been recognized as a dominant collective as they continued their ascent through the season, it was Johnson who garnered the most attention for being the Bucks’ leading force at the time.

Not only did his contemporaries rate the 24-year-old Johnson highly but the same applied to key Bucks officials such as then-vice president Wayne Embry and head coach Don Nelson, who each said the following to John Papanek of Sports Illustrated in November of 1980:

"“Elgin, Doc and Marques, in my opinion those three guys are the best forwards ever,” says Wayne Embry, the former NBA center who is now a Bucks vice-president. “Marques is closer to Elgin than Doc because of his great strength and defense. He not only has the quickest first step of anyone I’ve ever seen, but once he makes it he’s way up above everybody. Put those two things together and he can get anywhere he wants.”“Doc’s the Doc,” says Bucks Coach Don Nelson. “But Marques is the best all-round. We ask him to do more and he does do more. I never want to limit his abilities to one or two areas. There’s no doubt I could get 30 points a night from him if I went to him more. But he’s got to work his butt off on the D, so I limit him to 35 minutes or so. I could play him at guard if I wanted to, he’s that versatile. Sometimes in practice I do.”"

As Nelson alluded to, Johnson’s scoring prowess did end up taking a dip in his fourth season in the league. But the supporting cast that surrounded him more than made up for that fact, seeing that the Bucks sported seven players who scored in double figures by seasons end and finished with the second-best offensive rating, per

By the time the Bucks reached the All-Star break at the end of January, they had separated themselves entirely from their central division rivals by logging a 39-14 record. Following the brief layoff, in which Johnson was the lone player to represent the Bucks during the NBA’s midseason showcase event, the Bucks more or less picked up right where they left off.

Milwaukee went on to go 21-8 throughout the second half of the season, bringing their regular season record to 60-22, which still stands as the last Bucks team to hit the 60-win milestone. And because of the Bucks taking the central division crown, they came in as the second seed in the East, despite the fact that the 76ers matched the Celtics with 62 wins on the year.

In regards to individual accolades, Johnson came in sixth in that year’s MVP voting after posting 20.3 points on 55.2 percent shooting from the field, 6.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.5 steals in his 76 appearances for the season. Additionally, the 26-year-old Buckner landed on the NBA All-Defensive Second Team.

For what was such a transcendent year, one that he had longed to experience throughout his career before coming to Milwaukee, Lanier’s first true taste of success on the court was coupled with significant hardships off it that had unraveled his life as he knew it. First, Lanier’s father, Robert Sr., had been killed in a hit-and-run incident at the beginning of the season and then midway through the year, the 32-year-old center’s 11-year marriage came to an abrupt end.

Lanier touched on the off the court challenges and the various avenues he sought to bring him some peace of mind following those circumstances in early April of that year to The New York Times’ Ira Berkow:

"”This year?,” he said. ”It was difficult, very difficult, especially in the first quarter of the season,” Lanier said. ”Maybe the first half of the season.” He smiled, as though hiding something. ”Well, maybe the first three quarters.””It’s better now,” he continued, ”but for a period there, after Shirley walked out, I thought I was going crazy. Like everything was falling apart. I went to a shrink. I had never even considered seeing one before. It was helpful, it got me to relax. But I had to work at it. I’ll go home and it’s very quiet now, and I don’t move around the house much. I’ll close doors in the bedroom, so it’s like I’m in an apartment.”"

Despite their regular season achievements, the Bucks faced a truly formidable opponent to open up their playoff account after earning a break in the first round. They came in the form of that 62-win Sixers team that practically matched up with them like for like in terms of their respective star’s capabilities and their personnel in the starting lineup and on the bench.

It was the 76ers who landed the first punch after they snuck past the Bucks in the final minute of Game 1 to take a 125-122 victory in the series opener. The Bucks answered back with a 109-99 win in Game 2 to even up the series as it shifted back to Milwaukee.

The home court advantage, however, did little in the Bucks’ favor for Game 3 as the 76ers inched past Milwaukee, winning 108-103. Being down 2-1 prompted Johnson to will his team to a decisive 109-98 W in Game 4, a contest in which the UCLA alum put up 35 points on 16-of-25 shooting from the field, eight rebounds and seven assists in 41 minutes of action.

Johnson’s heroics, however, were quickly put on the back burner when he suffered a recurrence of back spasms in between Games 4 and 5 as he divulged to Anthony Cotton of Sports Illustrated during the series:

"“It’s nothing new; it just happened at such a hell of a time,” he said. “I kept telling everyone how cold the arena was, but I didn’t think about putting my warmups back on.”"

With his leading star hampered by injury as the series shifted back to Philly, Nelson opted not to stretch Johnson’s workload to its limits with him less than 100 percent for Game 5. The strategy, while sound and clearly in Johnson’s best interests, led to the Bucks getting rocked by the 76ers, seeing that they suffered a 116-99 defeat.

Backs firmly against the wall, the Bucks were contemplating their next move with their season on the brink ahead of Game 6.

Johnson was still less than 100 percent, but Nelson’s move of entrusting lanky 28-year-old power forward Mickey Johnson with a share of lead ball-handling duties flummoxed the 76ers’ defense on the Bucks’ way to a 109-86 triumph in Game 6. From that same piece by Cotton, Mickey Johnson assessed how the added wrinkle added to 76ers’ defensive strategy ahead of a do-or-die Game 7.

"“The attention given to Marques has worked to my advantage,” he said after Game 6. “Now, though, there’s a little more pressure on Philadelphia to deal with me, which should take some of the heat off of Marques.”"

In regards to that dilemma, the Bucks were dealt a bad break in the opening minutes of the series deciding Game 7 as Mickey Johnson got saddled with foul trouble early in the first quarter. Marques Johnson, past his brief back troubles, more than picked up the slack, yet it still wasn’t enough as the Bucks faced a 58-48 deficit heading into halftime.

After it looked like they had lost the plot altogether to open the second half, the Bucks sprung back into life near the end of the third quarter to set up a thrilling and tense finale. Following plenty of back and forth, though, the 76ers were able to fend off the Bucks’ comeback attempt to take the series and advance to the Conference Finals to take on the Boston Celtics.

Next. Milwaukee Bucks: Get to know the 1973-74 team. dark

Just like that, the Bucks’ truly exceptional season had come to a crushing end after a hard fought series against what would end up being a familiar East rival as the decade wore on. But it was still only the beginning of what would become a fruitful era of Bucks basketball.