Milwaukee Bucks: Getting to know the 1985-86 team

MILWAUKEE, WI - CIRCA 1986: (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - CIRCA 1986: (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

A well-oiled machine by this point in their run through the decade, the Milwaukee Bucks made one last charge to the Eastern Conference Finals during the 1985-86 season.

By the time the 1985-86 NBA season rolled around, the Milwaukee Bucks were a known commodity within the league.

Head coach Don Nelson, who was coming into his ninth full season at the helm, had fashioned his teams into models of consistency, regularly posting win totals in the 50s and 60s for much of the decade to that point.

The Bucks had a venerable two-way star in Sidney Moncrief, who was still at the peak of his powers at 28 years old, and Paul Pressey, heading into his fourth season in the league, had blossomed into the point forward role that had become a staple under Nelson-led teams.

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The only blip in the radar came the previous season where just before the 1984-85 campaign tipped off, the Bucks swung a blockbuster deal with the Los Angeles Clippers that netted them Terry Cummings, Ricky Pierce and Craig Hodges in exchange for Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings.

The high risk shakeup had paid off in the Bucks’ favor for that season as the Bucks rattled off a 59-23 record before they were unfortunately bounced by the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 1985 NBA Playoffs.

Bucking against the conventional wisdom that they looked to be heading towards a rebuilding stage, Nelson was rewarded with his second NBA Coach of the Year award for that campaign and drew the utmost respect from his peers and various figures around the league.

As both Pressey and Moncrief told Roy Johnson of The New York Times in April of 1986, the secret behind Nelson’s success was the veteran coach being willing to lean on his players when designing offensive and defensive strategies or catering to a certain player’s strengths:

"”Nellie gets the most out of his players, whether they’re all-stars, stars or role players, because he gets intake from all the players,” Pressey says of his coach. ”If you have the ability to stay outside and shoot, he’ll try to get you shots. He’ll let you get a feel for what he wants you to do by allowing you the freedom to do what you do best.”Moncrief adds: ”Some coaches are so stubborn, that if a player has a certain strength, but that strength doesn’t exactly fit into what he wants to do, the player’s lost. Nellie makes sure that there are options in our offense for everybody. And he has no hangups about asking a player’s opinion. A lot of times, coaches put things on the blackboard, but you may not be able to carry it out.”"

And once again, the Bucks were looking to once again take the Central Division crown and carve out a path to log that ever elusive trip to the NBA Finals heading into the 1985-86 season.

Although they had gotten into a winning stride in what stood as their 18th campaign in franchise history, they didn’t exactly sprint out of the gate either, holding a record of just 19-12 by Christmas time. Despite the somewhat concerning pace, the Bucks stood in pole position in the central division by the turn of the calendar year.

The Bucks’ mere solid run of form by their standards carried into the All-Star break as they held a 33-18 record. It was following the midseason respite where the Bucks really turned on the engines. They peeled off a 10-game winning streak once play resumed until the end of February and despite having a brief three-game slip up in the middle of March, the Bucks finished 15-6 in the final month and a half of the campaign.

Coming in at 57-25, the Bucks took the Central Division title for an unprecedented seventh straight time and stood as the second seed in the East behind the inimitable Boston Celtics, who finished 67-15. To open up their postseason account for that year, the Bucks matched up with the seventh-seeded New Jersey Nets, which they made quick work of by sweeping them in three games.

For their Eastern Conference Semi-finals matchup, the Bucks met against an all-too-familiar foe in the Philadelphia 76ers. By this time in the shared playoff history between the two East titans, it was the 76ers who had gotten the better of the Bucks in four out of five series and in each playoff set throughout all of the 80s to that point.

As if that wasn’t enough weighing on the team and on the minds of Bucks fans throughout the city of Milwaukee and beyond, the Bucks entered the second round down one vital component in Moncrief, who had been bogged down with plantar fasciitis in his left foot.

The 76ers responded to Moncrief’s absence well by taking Game 1 with a 118-112 triumph that was headlined by second-year forward Charles Barkley‘s magnificent performance as he put up 31 points on 19 shots, 20 rebounds, six assists and six steals in 46 minutes of action. With Moncrief bravely returning to action in spite of his condition, the Bucks countered with a 119-107 victory in Game 2 that evened up the series as it head to Philadelphia.

The Bucks were once again without Moncrief for Game 3 and fell short of toppling Philly as they logged a 108-103 defeat. In turn, with Moncrief back in the starting lineup, the Bucks left the City of Brotherly Love with a crucial 109-104 win in Game 4, despite Barkley nearly logging a 37-point triple-double.

Going against the trend set when without their two-way star guard, the Bucks prevailed over the Sixers 113-108 in Game 5 in MECCA Arena, thanks in large part to a triple-double performance from the well-rounded Pressey (the UTEP alum posted 23 points, 16 assists and 10 rebounds in 47 minutes of action).

Moncrief’s absence stretched into Game 6, perhaps by Nelson’s design after taking the previous tilt, and the 76ers evened up the series with a convincing 126-108 Game 6 win to set up a winner-take-all affair on May 11 in Milwaukee.

The highly anticipated contest didn’t disappoint by any stretch of the imagination as it went down to the wire, and may be best remembered for Julius Erving hitting the back iron on the final shot of the game to give the Bucks a 113-112 victory in Game 7.

Finally, after all these years and what was the biggest pound for pound meeting they had shared in the postseason, the Bucks had gotten past their playoff boogeyman, so to speak. In what was the first Game 7 win of the Nelson era, the then-45-year-old head coach called the clash “the nicest win I ever had.”

Moncrief reflected on dealing with playing through pain throughout the set to Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum following the end of the series:

"“The key is concentration,” says Sidney. “I knew my body couldn’t take me 30 minutes [he played 35 Sunday], but if you concentrate, if you’re tough mentally, you can go a long way with your body at 50 or 60 percent. First, you have to accept pain. Second, you have to know what hurts the most and try not to do that particular move as much. And be prepared for the pain when you do do it.”"

While they managed to get past one of their biggest challengers, a true Goliath in the Celtics awaited the Bucks on the other side for the Eastern Conference Finals. Nelson said as much to Dave Sell of the Washington Post by saying “I’m not sure that Boston isn’t on a different planet than the rest of us mere mortal teams.”

To make matters worse was the condition of the Bucks squad that was battered and bruised beyond Moncrief’s lingering foot and heel troubles heading into the series with Boston. That was reflected in the 128-96 rout the Celtics laid on the Bucks for Game 1, a matchup that Moncrief was stuck on the sidelines for.

The following contests wouldn’t be as one-sided, but the Bucks were unable to make any headway in what ended up being a four-game sweep for the Celtics which led to them punching their ticket to their fourth NBA Finals trip of that decade.

dark. Next. Milwaukee Bucks: Getting to know the 1980-81 team

Once again, after going through a wringer of a playoff series with Philadelphia, the Bucks’ season ended with yet another whack-a-mole-like finish that had come to define their existence throughout the 80’s. The question would then become could the Bucks manage to do it all again with another year of miles on their belts?