It was a tremendous series. Seven games between Seattle and Milwaukee decided by a total of 28 points. Home-court advantages repeatedly wiped out. A championship team stumbling and recovering just in time; the young challenger playing the final two games without a key player, yet leading with 4:24 left in the finale.
Chroniclers cite the Philadelphia-Boston series of 1968, New York-L.A. in '70, Boston-Phoenix in '76, to name but three of high and particular drama. And now there is Seattle-Milwaukee.
Those who saw it will remember that the defending champion Sonics trailed by six points with 11 minutes left in Sunday's seventh game, and they will recall Downtown Freddie Brown, who scored 10 of his 14 points in the last quarter, lofting a pair of 18-footers to keep it close just when it seemed Milwaukee might increase its margin. They'll remember Brown cutting into the lead again with a lovely hesitation move that brought Seattle within two at 80-78 and then hitting a pressure 20-footer with just over six minutes left that put Seattle ahead for the first time in the closing minutes.
"I needed the ball, I had to have it," Brown said later. "We needed instant point production, and I never had any doubt I was the man for the job."
As far back as the third game of the series, Milwaukee Guard Quinn Buckner, who had been assigned at different times to cover Brown and Gus Williams, had been apprehensive. "All we can do is keep a hand in their faces," he said. "And pray Fred Brown doesn't get hot. When that happens, there's nothing anyone can do."
Brown got the pivotal baskets; Williams led the Sonics with 33 points, including four free throws in the final 16 seconds, as Seattle won the final game 98-94 before a frenzied home crowd in the Coliseum.
From its first pulse-quickening moments, the series seemed destined to produce a harrowing finish, for this was a match made in basketball heaven. Seattle won the opener at home in overtime; the Bucks won the second game in overtime, and after four games the series was so even that both teams had scored exactly the same number of points. When it was annnounced during last Friday's sixth game, in Milwaukee, that there had been an electrical failure and that the arena was operating on emergency power, it seemed altogether plausible that if the lights did fail, so luminous was the action that the arena would glow in the dark.
The Bucks might well have gone ahead 3-0 had it not been for Dennis Johnson's desperate three-point basket from 30 feet out with a single second to play in overtime of the first game. Johnson's heroic heave gave the Sonics a 114-113 victory. The Bucks won the second game 114-112 in overtime and Game 3 by 95-91 when the series moved to Milwaukee. After that, the home team didn't win again until Sunday, four of the seven games having been taken by the visiting team.
As a concept, however, the home-court advantage dies hard, and for that reason it was a vintage series for undue optimism and unwarranted despair. Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson was guilty of the former when, before Game 4, he said, "We've definitely got them in a corner now."
That had been true literally as well as figuratively in Game 3, when Milwaukee's guards managed to trap Seattle's backcourt so effectively that the Sonics weren't able to run. "And we're not a good team when we walk the ball up," admitted Seattle Coach Lenny Wilkens.
But after generating points from only 14 fast breaks in the first three games, the Sonics pushed the ball quickly up-court in Game 4, increasing their production from Williams, Dennis Johnson and Brown from 39 points in the third game to 67 points. Johnson, a 42% shooter during the regular season, hit nine of 11 shots, and Williams knocked in seven of nine to help quell a third-quarter Milwaukee uprising. Seattle shot 53% from the field, and prevented the Bucks from taking what would have been an almost insurmountable 3-1 advantage, by winning 112-107.
If the Bucks were going to buckle under the intense pressure of a playoff series against the defending world champions, it seemed it would have happened in Game 5, when 40,172 Seattle fans filled the Kingdome to its lid. It was the largest crowd ever to see a single NBA game, and it should have been intimidating. (Not only did the Sonics have the imposing crowd, but they also had the league's best disco theme music—a tune composed especially for them by Shalamar called Second Time Around. The Bucks had a song, too, Green and Growing, but no one knew for sure whether this was theme music or some type of fungus.)
But the Bucks didn't crumble; it was the Sonics who fumbled away one opportunity after another. Milwaukee's guards once again found that they could pinch Williams, D.J. and Brown against the sidelines and disrupt Seattle's patterns. The Sonics turned the ball over three times in the first 90 seconds of the second half and fell back by 10 points. Even when Seattle drew within three points of the lead, the Sonics took four consecutive horrible shots, while Milwaukee rookie Forward Pat Cummings was nailing back-to-back bull's-eyes in the midst of what had become an unearthly din. Cummings' baskets put the Sonics away 108-97. "He's a rookie," said Nelson. "He probably thought the crowd was rooting for him."
With reserve Center Harvey Catchings suffering from a bone spur in his left foot. Nelson had tried Richard Washington as Bob Lanier's backup in the middle. Washington proved himself by hitting 10 of 14 shots, adding 21 points to Lanier's game-high 22 to give the Bucks a 43-21 edge over Seattle's pivotmen, Jack Sikma and James Bailey. "This was our backs-to-the-wall game," said Lanier. "Seattle has to be afraid of us now. If they win, everybody says all they did was beat the peons from Milwaukee. So we've got nothing to lose."
Facing elimination in Milwaukee, the Sonics spent a lot of time talking about things like their lack of killer instinct and how they needed crucial games to perform at their best. "Ideally we shouldn't be in a position to need that kind of pressure to win in the playoffs," Sikma said. "All playoff games are supposed to be pressure games. Sooner or later we're going to get burned."
"Sometimes we just expect that we can walk out onto the floor and play like the Sonics," added Dennis Johnson, "but we can't do that."
Wilkens was the least sanguine Sonic regarding his team's inability or unwillingness to bear down for every game. "We play well under pressure," he said, "even seem to thrive on it for some reason. That's good, I'm glad we do it. But it's quickly making an old man of me. Our backs are to the wall."
Seattle's bouts of the vapors and intermittent muscle-flexing perplexed Nelson. "If they can turn it on and turn it off like they say they can," he said, "then they're a much better team than we are. We've played hard in every game, and I would hate to think they were just getting up for what they happen to consider the big games. They say they are, but I think if that's true it's a real shame."
No less a shame was the opportunity the Bucks let get away in Game 6. Despite the absence of swingman Junior Bridgeman, who had bruised his back in the previous game, and the limited mobility of Dave Meyers, who was playing with a wrenched knee, Milwaukee could have put the Sonics away Friday night and didn't do it. The Bucks got Seattle Forward Lonnie Shelton in early foul trouble, held the Sonics to a miserable .382 shooting percentage, induced Sikma to miss all but one of his 14 shots, successfully contained both Williams and Dennis Johnson—and still lost 86-85.
The Sonics won by keeping the ball in play on their own backboard and out-rebounding the Bucks on the offensive boards 19-7. It was particularly significant that Seattle's Paul Silas, the oldest player in the league, came off the bench for 14 rebounds after a fairly quiet series. "What it all boils down to," he said as he packed his bag for the trip back to Seattle, "is who wants it the most."
On Sunday, nobody wanted it more than Williams, Brown, the massive Shelton, who had 15 rebounds to go with his 15 points, and the consistent John (J.J.) Johnson. "Lonnie's play was an inspiration," said Silas. "He wanted this game so badly, play after play."
Said Fred Brown, "They thought their youth and exuberance would carry them, but in the end it came down to us knowing how to win." And doing it.