The turning point in the Milwaukee Bucks' season might have occurred on Feb. 7 in Kansas City. The Bucks, losers of six of seven games, gathered in their Kemper Arena locker room before a game against the Kings, ostensibly to receive words of wisdom from coach Don Nelson. What they got, however, was something of a more lyrical nature. Accompanied by assistant coaches Mike Schuler and Garry St. Jean, Nelson startled the Bucks by giving them his rendition of the Oak Ridge Boys' Dig a Little Deeper in the Well.
Thus inspired, Milwaukee beat the Kings 112-110 in overtime and went 24-10 for the rest of the regular season. The fact that Nelson can still occasionally be heard singing the ditty goes a long way toward explaining Milwaukee's presence in the NBA's Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics following a three-games-to-two victory over the Atlanta Hawks in the opening playoff round and a 4-2 decision over the New Jersey Nets in the conference semifinals. The Bucks' 94-82 win on May 8 in Milwaukee and their series-clinching 98-97 victory two nights later in New Jersey could be considered a triumph for the happy warblers, as much as anything else.
"I've had more fun coaching this season than in any of my previous eight," Nelson said after the Nets were eliminated. "To do a job on paper and have the team believe in your principles and then carry them out on the court gives me a very special feeling."
Given the jubilant reaction of the Bucks and Nelson, who played on five NBA championship teams with Boston, to their win over New Jersey, one might have thought they had pulled off an upset for the ages, one on a par with, say, the Nets' first-round dethroning of the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers.
But this wasn't a usual season for the Bucks, and that perhaps explains their inspired, almost crusading, style in the playoffs. The Bucks had romped to the Central Division title the last four years, but this season found themselves in a scramble with Detroit, prevailing only when the Pistons lost their final game of the season to Atlanta. Nelson had to juggle his lineup as most teams do because of injuries, and even had to reach out on March 6 to Wall Street, where retired guard Mike Dunleavy was working, to replace Nate (Tiny) Archibald, who went out for the season with a torn right hamstring. That sort of desperate maneuvering, combined with the prospect of losing 35-year-old center Bob Lanier—Milwaukee's sole source of consistent inside strength—to retirement, even prompted Nelson to say he would give up his coach's job to concentrate on his G.M.'s duties.
"I've spent eight years shaping this team and it would be hard to adjust to struggling to win," says Nelson, who has a 374-264 regular-season record. "That's what it would be without a dominant center, and maybe I don't take losing well enough to handle it."
Lanier, for one, thinks Nelson is just blowing smoke. "He's been more intense this season," says Lanier. "But he ain't going anywhere. He likes the chess-game situation too much, the drama and the challenge."
Nelson, who suffered from a case of ennui during the regular season, admits the playoffs have him excited. "This is the greatest part of the whole deal," says Nelson. "The high-level atmosphere, the big-game situation, that's what the whole year is all about. It's what I love."
Nelson seems to be at his best in the playoffs, devising whatever strategy is necessary, on offense and defense. "There's a forward in the Central Division who loves to shoot the ball, who'll only pass it when he has to," Nelson says. "When we play against him, what we do is actually leave him open early, let him take shots. Gradually we tighten the screws, until by the end of the game he's really covered, but now he's so into shooting that there's no way he'll pass the ball and he forces up shot after shot."
Nelson had to make an unusual tactical adjustment against the Nets. New Jersey assistant coach John Killilea worked under Nelson in Milwaukee for six seasons and knew all the Bucks' plays. In order to hide his offensive plans from Killilea during the game, Nelson held one side of his sportscoat open in front of him as he flashed his signals to conceal them from Killilea.
Killilea aside, Nelson's No. 1 challenge against the Nets was breaking their momentum. After ousting the Sixers, New Jersey beat the Bucks 106-100 in Game 1 at Milwaukee. "The Nets outlet to midcourt, run off of rebounds and baskets and get their big men on the break," marveled Buck swingman Junior Bridgeman. "I've never seen a team so conscious of running."
Predominantly a slow-paced team under Larry Brown and his predecessor, Kevin Loughery, the Nets were introduced to the running game this season by new coach Stan Albeck, who came to New Jersey from the run-and-gun San Antonio Spurs. Says Albeck, "When we ran first-break drills early in the season, we'd tell our players to do something simple like fan out or fill the lanes, and they'd go, 'What? How?' "
After the first game, however, the Bucks, the NBA's best defensive team during the regular season, when they held opponents to 46% shooting and only 101.5 points a game, slowed the Nets to a brisk jog. Nelson had his team contesting Jersey's outlet passes and often used a three-guard lineup—Sidney Moncrief, Paul Pressey and Bridgeman—with Marques Johnson at power forward that matched the Nets' quickness.
By diffusing the Jersey break Nelson forced the Nets into half-court situations that exposed their weaknesses: They can't execute a set offense and can't create shots under heavy pressure. As a result, New Jersey shot only 40% the last five games, with guards Otis Birdsong and Micheal Ray Richardson firing a combined 37%.
It was just as obvious that the emotion the Nets often called upon against the 76ers just wasn't available against Milwaukee. "The Philly series drained us," said forward Buck Williams. "It was just too hard to continually be that emotional," added forward Albert King. "You can't high-five all of the time."
Once they slowed the Nets, the Bucks went to work on controlling King and New Jersey's board-crashing offensive rebounders. King sparked the Nets against the Sixers with his shooting off the bench but wasn't a factor against the Bucks. Forced away from his favorite spots toward the middle of the court, he averaged just 9.6 points per game on 33% shooting.
Fortunately for the Nets, they collected an amazing 84 offensive boards in the first four games and overcame big deficits to win Games 1 and 4.
Before the fifth game, Nelson laid down the law: Any Buck found, in Milwaukee assistant coach Mike Schuler's estimation, not to have blocked out his man under the boards would be assessed a $10 fine for each offense. "There was $50 literally up in the air with each shot," Nelson said. If there were no fines, fine. After his first offense, a player could get a dollar back for each time he successfully boxed out his man.
Not coincidentally, Game 5 was the first in the series in which the Bucks out-rebounded the Nets—53-37. Nelson collected only $29. "I know there were times when I was blocking out my own teammate," says Johnson.
In the finale, the difference was more striking, as Milwaukee held a 56-36 edge on the boards and limited the Nets to 10 offensive rebounds. "Amazing what a little $10 fine will do," said Nelson.
Not nearly as amazing as a roomful of players sitting still long enough to listen to their coach Dig a Little Deeper.