Everyone knows what it takes to please a Milwaukee Buck fan. Give him a six-pack. What other salve has there been since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took his goggles and his Persian rug collection to Los Angeles in 1975 and left Laverne and Shirley and—ehhhhh!—The Fonz, to fill the giant void?
That was until last week, when the young, brash Bucks exploded in the reddened faces of the Suns, wiping Phoenix clean out of the NBA playoffs that some experts thought it would win. In setting down the Suns bang-bang in their best-of-three mini-series—111-103 to undo Phoenix' home-court advantage, and then 94-90 before their own frothing home crowd—the Bucks served notice on the Denver Nuggets, their next opponent, that they are not to be taken lightly, much the way a young Phoenix team did two years ago when it slew one Goliath after another all the way to the NBA finals.
And for those of you who are keeping score, the two games settled, at least on a face-to-face basis, the Rookie of the Year battle between the two superb forwards, Marques Johnson and Walter Davis. Not only did the Bucks' Johnson outplay the Suns' Davis, but he also was easily the Bucks' series MVP with 57 points and 28 rebounds—compared to 50 and 17 for Davis. Johnson's totals included a thoroughly magnificent 33-point, 12-rebound performance in the clincher, and he needed those kinds of numbers to outshine his teammate, Guard Brian Winters, who was himself winning another battle of the brilliants, outshooting and outscoring the Suns' Paul Westphal 55-52.
Suddenly it was remembered that as callow as the Bucks are—average age 24.5, second-youngest behind Indiana in the NBA—they have faced pressure before. Six of them played in the NCAA final four, and four were on championship teams. "People thought we should be satisfied just to make the playoffs," said no-nonsense Guard Quinn Buckner, who captained Indiana and the U.S. Olympic team to championships in 1976 and is, in his second year, the Bucks' floor leader. "No way. I expect to beat every team I play."
April 24, 1978
The shock of it all left Nugget Assistant Coach George Irvine, who was scouting the series, in a cold sweat as he rushed back to Denver to feed a few hundred pages of Phoenix scouting reports into the shredder. "I think Milwaukee is going to give us some trouble," he said of the best-of-seven Nugget-Buck series that got under way this week. "I thought maybe we had their number, because we beat them three out of four during the season. But—ahem—so did Phoenix."
Most of the Suns denied having taken the Bucks for granted, though Guard Don Buse said in a postmortem, "The truth is, we weren't really prepared for them." Indeed, the Suns began the week enjoying their status as heavy favorites to beat the Bucks almost as much as their regular sunbathing and Jacuzzi sessions.
Certainly this Phoenix team looked better than the 1976 outfit. Just babes then, see how they've grown! At 27, Westphal, a 25.2-point-per-game scorer, has become perhaps the best guard in the business. Alvan Adams has matured into the best passing center next to Bill Walton. Strong Forward Gar Heard could be expected to handle rookie Johnson with ease. There were also guards Ron Lee and Buse—the Kamikaze Kid and the league's best defender—who finished first and fifth in steals, respectively, and helped give Phoenix a half-share of the NBA team record for assists. This pair often passed to the marvelous Davis, who scored in double figures in every one of his 81 games, averaging 24.2 points, the most by any rookie this season. No wonder it was overlooked that, although the Suns roared out to a Portlandish 36-16 record, they limped (13-17) thereafter, largely because of the loss of Forward Curtis Perry with a back injury in January.
Even so, how could they consider Milwaukee a threat? The Bucks, 44-38, could have easily been 36-46, had it not been for eight wins in nine overtime games. They are so young and they lack a center of distinction. Still, while John Gianelli, the starter in the pivot, may be only a journeyman, he is better than the man he replaced early in the season, Kent Benson, the million-dollar rookie flop.
Nevertheless, the normally genteel Coach John MacLeod was worried enough to proclaim before Game 1 that the Bucks were a band of basketball hoodlums. On television and in the Phoenix papers MacLeod said, "I'm concerned about what they do defensively. I'm talking about forearm smashes and elbows. Forearm smashes to the back of the head. We won't put up with play that could maim one of our players and put him out for the season."
MacLeod's remarks made excellent poolside reading for the Bucks as they lounged at their Phoenix hotel. The players and coaches were furious. "MacLeod pulled the same stuff in '76," said Milwaukee Assistant Coach John Killilea, who was with Boston at the time. "His offense works best against the wind. He'd rather not have people out there."
The effect of MacLeod's action, of course, was to incite the Bucks. And that was not the Suns' only miscalculation. Just before the tip-off in Memorial Coliseum the crowd was informed that Davis had been voted Rookie of the Year by the NBA players in a 139-16 landslide over Johnson. (The winner of the "official" rookie award, voted upon by writers and broadcasters, has not yet been announced.)
The announcement whipped up the fans, as well as Davis, who proceeded to show why he thought the vote should have been unanimous. He scored 15 points in the first half on drives, end-to-end fast breaks, bank shots and one impossible double-pump-spinning-under-handed-flip-while-triple-teamed underneath the basket. In addition, Westphal and Adams were scoring at will over Buckner and Gianelli, and it seemed that not even whips and chains could slow down the dashing Suns as they opened up a 12-point lead in the second period.
Only Winters' six-for-eight shooting and Forward David Meyers' brutal inside offense kept the Bucks close enough for Johnson, stung by the Rookie of the Year announcement, to make the difference in the second half.
"I had a nice little talk with myself during halftime," says Johnson, "and I decided I wasn't happy with how I played in the first half. I decided that in the second half I was just going to hit the boards, set picks for Brian and take the shot when I had it."
Johnson stuck to his resolutions, personally cleaning the glass at both ends for the remainder of the game and hitting seven of 10 shots to finish with 16 rebounds and 24 points. He also set enough picks for Winters to make eight of 13, including a pair of quick jumpers that gave the Bucks the lead for good at 87-85.
While Milwaukee was shooting 61% in the fourth quarter, MacLeod was running subs in and out of the game as though he were coaching hockey. Result: the Suns hit a mere 36%. Westphal, who scored a modest 20 points, was either immobilized by Winters or on MacLeod's bench. Davis matched Winters' total of 31 points, but he was really no match for Johnson.
During the off-days before Friday's meeting in Milwaukee, dark clouds hung over swimming pools all around Phoenix. MacLeod admitted that he should have chosen his words more carefully ("I should not have implied that the whole team was dirty, just certain individuals," he said), and more than one Sun complained about all the substituting and questioned MacLeod's verbal tactics.
Nelson was asked if he considered the win "a steal." "Well," he said, "as Jimmy the Greek would say, we were seven-point underdogs."
Meanwhile, in Milwaukee there was a flash epidemic of Friday Night Fever. "Last time we had it like this," said Buck Director of Business Operations John Steinmiller, "Travolta was still doing the twist."
Game 2 was scripted much like Game 1, except that it was played in double decibels—quadruple when MacLeod was introduced and a banner hoisted that said MACLEOD PLAYS DIRTY WITH HIS MOUTH. Phoenix took immediate control, out-scoring the Bucks 11-4 at the beginning and 15-4 at the end of the first quarter. Paced again by Westphal, Davis and Adams, the Suns had a 13-point lead midway through the second period. In the game's big defensive change for Phoenix, MacLeod put Westphal, no candidate for the NBA All-Defensive team, on Winters, who was going to score anyway, and Buse on Buckner to attack the ball and disrupt Milwaukee's flow. It worked beautifully. Buckner turned the ball over six times in the first half.
But just when it looked as though the Suns would be able to go home and bag some rays before Game 3, Winters got hot again. He hit a tip-in and a fast-break layup, and then he scored off another rebound followed by a top-of-the-key jumper. Finally he faked Westphal out of his shoes with a stutter-step lean-in. By halftime the Bucks had stormed back to within three, 52-49.
Now we come again to the part when Johnson talks to himself. His first half had not been that bad this time—14 points—but tonight he was really determined. "I just said to myself, 'Marques, it's time.' "
Westphal began the second half with a layup before Meyers and Winters hit jumpers to make it 54-53 Phoenix. Then Johnson took matters into his own hands, scoring the Bucks' next 13 points in 5½ minutes with a turnaround jumper and a slam dunk in Heard's face, a baseline jumper, a tap-in, a layup and three free throws. He put in 17 of Milwaukee's 22 points in the third period. Still, the Suns had their chances to send the series back to Phoenix.
Down 89-88 with 3:25 to go, Davis, who had missed seven straight outside shots in the third period, blew a six-footer. Then Westphal had an open 18-footer. It bounced off the rim. Winters hit a jumper from the left corner with Buse draped on him at 1:49, and then Westphal stole the ball from Buckner and laid it in to make the score 91-90. With 47 seconds left, Davis had the ball on the left side, and the Suns cleared out so he could go one-on-one against Johnson. Davis tried a 12-footer. Johnson blocked it—a final "in your face" for his rival—and a moment later the ball went out of bounds off Heard.
Now Winters had the ball, killing the clock but desperately wanting a basket. With the 24-second clock down to :03, he slipped behind a Gianelli screen and, with Adams all over him, launched the 23-footer that put the Suns in total eclipse.
Inside the winners' dressing room, one might have expected to find the exuberant youths popping champagne corks. Not these Bucks. "The Suns are the ones who should be excited," said Forward Alex English. "They're going to the sunshine. We're just going to Denver."