The 1983 Milwaukee Bucks came into the NBA season looking to take the next step. The franchise had been successful since head coach Don Nelson arrived in 1978, but playoff heartbreak was becoming a predictable end of the season. They lost to Denver in a seven-game series in ’78. After a year out of the postseason, it was back to a seven-game loss to Seattle.
After a realignment into the Eastern Conference they ran smack into the Philadelphia 76ers, who took them out in seven games in ’81 and six in ’82. All of these playoff losses took place in the second round. Could the Bucks ever get back to the conference finals?
Milwaukee wanted to get bigger and they traded veteran guard and team leader Quinn Buckner to Boston in the offseason, getting Celtics legend Dave Cowens back. Cowens might be 34 years old coming into the 1983 season, but he knew something about winning and he joined up with Bob Lanier, another 34-year-old center, to give Nelson the ability to always have a quality veteran big man on the floor.
The frontcourt was supplemented with important role players in Alton Lister, Harvey Catchings and Mickey Johnson. There was no star—not the way Boston had Robert Parish or Philadelphia had newly acquired Moses Malone, but the Bucks had depth up front.
What Milwaukee had in raw numbers on the frontline they made for up with star power in the backcourt, and this team’s meal ticket was Sidney Moncreif. In his fourth year, Moncreif averaged 23 ppg and rebounded at a pace you wouldn’t guess from his 6’3” frame. Moncreif was joined by Marques Johnson, who also scored 20-plus points per game. Moncreif and Johnson carried the offensive load and Nelson filled in the blanks with a quality small forward in Junior Bridgeman and a long-range shooter in Brian Winters.
The season got off to a slow start at 7-5, including a 121-109 loss at Philadelphia, but the Bucks quickly turned it around and won six of seven, with a 115-112 win over Boston mixed in. The respective streaks—and their signature games—would be a foreshadowing of Milwaukee’s place in the Eastern Conference.
From mid-December to mid-January, Milwaukee went 14-5, though it required double overtime in Chicago and a one-point home win over Golden State, both bad teams. The Bucks didn’t match up with the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, losing a two-point decision out west and by ten back in the Midwest. But Milwaukee still won seven of eight in February and kept control of the Central Division. Even though they hit a bump in the road during a 4-8 stretch toward the end, it was only after the team’s playoff position was secure.
In 1983, the NBA ‘s conferences were split into two divisions and the first-place teams each got a first-round bye, with four other teams playing a two-of-three “mini-series” to advance. Milwaukee’s 51-31 record slotted them in the 2-seed behind Philadelphia. After the Celtics survived Atlanta it set up a Bucks-Celtics battle.
While Boston may not have been the team specifically making Milwaukee’s life miserable the previous two years, the Celts had won a title in 1981, reached the conference finals the year before and beating Larry Bird’s team would most certainly qualify as “getting to the next level” for Nelson and his Bucks.
Boston won 56 games, so even though they were the lower seed, the Celtics held homecourt advantage. But the work Milwaukee had done beefing up the previous offseason had immediate effect. Even though Boston held a 24-23 lead at the end of the first quarter, the Bucks methodically took over and won 116-95, thanks to a decisive 56-43 edge on the boards. Lanier knocked down 21 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and led the way.
Two nights later a sure sign that this was Milwaukee’s year came forward—Bird was unable to play Game 2 due to illness. The Celtics came out motivated for the home fans and were up fifteen at the half, but once again it was Milwaukee taking over when it mattered most. The Celtics were held to nine points in the fourth quarter, as Milwaukee’s defense—fourth in the NBA overall—was coming through at the season’s most important time.
The series reverted to Milwaukee for Game 3 on the first day of May. Once again, Boston came out strong and scored 34 first quarter points. And once again, Milwaukee’s defense took over, erased the lead by halftime and a tight game in the fourth quarter ended up a 107-99 win for the Bucks. They got 19 points/10 rebounds from Bridgeman, 22 more from Johnson and 26 from Moncreif. One more to go.
One night later the teams were back on the floor at the old Milwaukee Arena and this time the Celtics didn’t have any fight left in the them. Johnson rang up 33 points, while Moncreif’s 25 marked his fourth straight game over the 20-point barrier. They held Bird to 18 points—even in the three games where Larry Legend was healthy, he was kept under wraps. Milwaukee finally had a big playoff series win in the Nelson era.
The playoff run wouldn’t go any further. The 76ers were loaded, on a mission and they rolled Milwaukee en route to a title. But even here the Bucks got a moral victory—they were the only team in the playoffs to even get a single victory against Philly. Nelson’s team would never win an NBA title, but they played consistently good basketball throughout the 1980s and 1983 was the high point.