Getting A Monkey Off Their Bucks

Milwaukee overcame years of playoff frustration by deep-sixing the 76ers to advance to the Eastern Conference finals
May 18, 1986

The NBA playoffs are considerably quieter now. "Barkleymania," as the phenomenon was characterized by Terry Cummings, is over until next season, and the survivors of the Eastern Conference semifinal series are the Milwaukee Bucks, a team of loyal wooden soldiers who should soon fall on their swords in the conference finals against the Boston Celtics.

But give the Bucks their due. In beating the Philadelphia 76ers 113-112 on Sunday in the seventh game of the semis at Milwaukee Arena, the Bucks shook several monkeys off their backs. Not the least of their tormentors was the 260-pound Charles Barkley, a nemesis throughout this hotly contested series. The Bucks had never before won the seventh game of a playoff series. They hadn't eliminated Philadelphia in the postseason since 1970, and in four of the last five years the 76ers had kicked out the Bucks, a happenstance that had made Milwaukee's string of divisional championships (now seven straight) as meaningless as Monopoly money at the blackjack table.

So, raise a glass to Don Nelson's warriors...while they're still around. Just how long that will be depends largely on the Celtics. And how did Milwaukee defense Boston during the season? "Not very well," says assistant coach Garry St. Jean ruefully. The Bucks lost all five regular-season games to Boston, and there's not much reason to assume a new trend will start now. In fact, there's none at all. Sidney Moncrief, who played as brave a playoff series as anyone since the Knicks' Willis Reed hobbled onto the Madison Square Garden floor against the Lakers in 1970, is walking gingerly on a painful left heel. Cummings has a dislocated finger, the one with which he would salute Barkley if he were that kind of guy. He jammed it late in the first quarter of Sunday's game, screamed in agony when Dr. David Haskell yanked it back into place in the Milwaukee dressing room, then came back out and finished the game with 27 points and eight rebounds. To add injury to injury, Ricky Pierce, the Bucks' valuable off-the-bench scorer, has a sprained left ankle.

And everyone, especially the Bucks' three-headed center of Randy Breuer, Alton Lister and Paul Mokeski, is just plain worn out from leaning on and listening to Barkley. After all, a guy who averages 27.6 points and 14.7 rebounds while trashing your fans, knocking one of your centers on his backside and getting the Reverend Terry Cummings into a verbal mudslinging match, tends to tucker you out.

But it was Julius Erving, not Barkley, who held the fate of the Sixers in his hands Sunday. With two seconds left on the shot clock and Philadelphia trailing by one point, Erving let fly with a wide-open jump shot from 15 feet. Barkley headed for the boards, but ran into Cummings. "Cummings sent him flying," said Sixer coach Matt Guokas, "but I wouldn't expect to get that call in this situation." Said Cummings: "Well, yes, I did get a body on him." Barkley didn't say anything. For a while, anyway. Nelson watched the flight of the ball, convinced his personal nightmare against the Sixers was about to continue. "When I saw Doc take the last shot, I knew, I was positive, he would make it," said the Bucks' coach.

But the ball bounced off the back rim, Pierce scrambled for the rebound, and the game was over. "I was the most surprised person in the whole world when it didn't go in," said Nelson. "Doc's made so many big ones over the years you just expect it." Said Erving: "It was a good shot. I just missed it." And by that small margin of error were the Sixers eliminated, with only the No. 1 pick in the NBA lottery drawing earlier that afternoon to appease them.

It was fitting that the series came down to one shot, for there was little separating these teams throughout. "A classic series with a classic finish," said Erving. "It's part of the beauty of the game to have a battle like this." Only Doc, the NBA's Rod McKuen, would put it that way, but it's true. More than by anyone else, though, the series was defined by the heart of Moncrief and the soul train named Barkley.

The Crisco Kid alienated Milwaukee's fans even before Game 1 when he suggested that the Bucks have only two true stars, Moncrief and Cummings. Never mind that it's true. Barkley is an enigma to the blue-collar fans of Milwaukee. He plays hard and tough and relentlessly, but there's too much slide in his stride, too much talking, too much emoting. In what became the norm for the series, he was booed relentlessly during the opener in Milwaukee; Barkley got revenge by scoring 31 points, grabbing 20 rebounds and hitting two key free throws in a 118-112 Sixer victory, a game in which Moncrief didn't play.

Returning for Game 2, Moncrief (16 points, six rebounds, five assists) led the Bucks to a 119-107 win in which they overcame a 26-point, 15-board effort by Barkley. It was at this point that Cummings announced that he was sick and tired of Barkleymania. Barkley, in turn, told reporters to tell Cummings "to go bleep himself," though he added, "but do it in a religious way."

Game 3 in Philly: No Moncrief, lots of Barkley (29 points, 13 rebounds), and the Sixers won 107-103. Game 4: Barkley starred (37, 14), but Moncrief was back (13 points, five rebounds, four assists) and the Bucks won 109-104 to tie the series at 2-2.

The Bucks managed to win Game 5, 113-108, without Moncrief, though Barkley scored 29 points, grabbed eight rebounds and, in the midst of a sudden, startling, midcourt fourth-quarter fury, knocked Mokeski to the floor with a crushing left forearm to the face. Barkley said later that he felt Mokeski had thrown a cheap shot at him. Mokeski denied it. Barkley was anything but apologetic after the game; he taunted the Milwaukee fans verbally one more time. When they were handing out brass, Barkley must have gone for it as if it were an offensive rebound. Or a jelly doughnut.

With a 3-2 lead, Nelson surely sensed that he wasn't going to win the series at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. Moncrief didn't even dress for Game 6, and Nelson used his reserves for much of the fourth period, when the Bucks were down but not necessarily out. Philly won 126-108. Barkley was good for 23 points, 21 rebounds and no quotes. That's because his mother and grandmother had communicated to him that his jawboning was getting tiresome. "So I'm saying nothing," said Barkley, who continued his silence on Sunday with the terse statement: "My speaking career is over." Let's hope it's not true.

Game 7. Moncrief played, of course. His condition, known as plantar fasciitis or "jogger's heel," is a painful one that can be brought on by chronic irritation or stress. The only cure is rest. "But we knew he'd be there," said St. Jean. "These guys believe in him so much. In terms of poise, heart and concentration, we believe that Sidney and Larry Bird are the best in the league." Moncrief knows about playing with pain. Aching knees bother him constantly, but he never says a word.

"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."

Every time Moncrief planted his left heel he felt a stab of pain. But that didn't stop him from hurting the Sixers. Down the stretch, his three-point play at 3:02 and his two free throws with 53 seconds left gave Milwaukee one-point leads. After the latter, Barkley put the Sixers back in front, 112-111, with a twisting layup, but Craig Hodges got loose underneath and forced Barkley, scrambling to help out, into a goaltending call. That gave the Bucks a 113-112 edge. So it came down to the final Sixer possession.

Barkley inbounded to Sedale Threatt with seven seconds left, five on the shot clock. The first option was for Barkley to post up and get the ball back inside, but Threatt spotted a wide-open Erving. Erving's miss concluded what Cummings called "a character-building series."

But now what? In the Eastern finals it should become evident that two heads—those belonging to Celtic centers Robert Parish and Bill Walton—are far better than Milwaukee's three. As for Moncrief, if he's able to play, he will have to deal with Dennis Johnson, one of the strongest guards in the league. "My biggest problem with the injury is walking and trying to jump," said Moncrief, ever the stoic. Then he thought about that statement and smiled. "I guess in my occupation that can be a serious problem." Bird and Kevin McHale will be two other serious problems.

The Bucks just don't have the goods to upset the varied Boston game plan, which Pierce called "forty-eight minutes of execution," a possible description of Milwaukee's game-by-game fate, too. The Bucks get out on the break infrequently—and usually under the leadership of a forward, Paul Pressey—and oftentimes disintegrate in the half-court offense because no one on the team is a consistent threat down low. They achieved the third-best record in the NBA this season behind the all-around brilliance of Moncrief, a tenacious team defense and the deft button-pushing of Nelson. But they'll need more than that against the Celtics.

Still, Milwaukee did have the satisfaction of muzzling Barkleymania. Minutes after the final buzzer on Sunday, Charles sat alone on the Sixer bench. He didn't respond as dozens of celebrating Milwaukee fans jeered at him. He looked spent. By Game 7, even Barkley's wide shoulders had drooped under the pressure of making up for the absence of Moses Malone over the last six weeks. Barkley had scored only 18 points Sunday, just four during a missing-in-action first half in which he didn't even attempt a field goal. Finally, Maurice Cheeks came over and pulled Barkley to his feet.

No such helping hand will be extended to the Bucks in Boston.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOPlaying with a painful "jogger's heel," Moncrief hurt Philly with 23 points in Game 7. PHOTOJOHN IACONOCummings went to the bench with a dislocated finger, but came back to score 27. PHOTOJERRY WACHTER[See caption above.] PHOTOJERRY WACHTERPressey, dishing it off here to Hodges (24 points), lent a hand with his 15 assists. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERBarkley tormented the Bucks for six games, but they were in his face in the seventh. PHOTOJERRY WACHTERThreatt (3) was a threat with 28 points... PHOTOJERRY WACHTER...but it was Erving who held the Sixers' fate in his hands as he took the final shot.