The Milwaukee Bucks trail the Phoenix Suns 2–1 in the NBA Finals heading into Game 4. It’s the first time the Bucks have been in the Finals since 1974, and it’s been 50 years since the franchise’s only title. It’s a drought that could easily have been a bit shorter, but for a pair of superstars in Larry Bird and Julius Erving getting in the way.
The Bucks are the winningest team in the NBA over the last three seasons, but this is their first NBA Finals appearance during that span. The Milwaukee teams of the early 1980s to the early 1990s can relate to that. The Bucks were one of the best teams in the NBA and a perennial contender. And for several years, their playoff runs were run off the rails by either Bird or Erving.
The big break never came for the Milwaukee Bucks of the 1980s
The Milwaukee Bucks could play with anyone in that era. But in the playoffs, it never quite worked out.
Sidney Moncrief was one of the stars of those 1980s Milwaukee Bucks teams. He won the first two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1982–83 and 1983–84, made five All-NBA and All-Defensive teams each, and is a Hall of Famer. Moncrief told USA Today the Bucks never lost faith.
“Every year, there was hope because we had teams good enough to compete, and that’s something special about having teams with a good nucleus every year. You knew we were going to be in the hunt.”Sidney Moncrief
Two other Hall of Famers played for the Bucks during that period, big men Bob Lanier and Jack Sikma. The Bucks made 12 consecutive playoff appearances from 1980–91, but one of the same two roadblocks often ended up in the way. From 1981–87, those roadblocks proved insurmountable.
One of two teams eliminated the Bucks 7 straight years
The Milwaukee Bucks entered the 1980–81 season in a new division and conference. After winning the Midwest Division the previous season, the Bucks shifted to the Eastern Conference’s Central Division in a realignment that also sent the Chicago Bulls to the East. In exchange, Texas’ two clubs — the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs — moved to the West to join the expansion Dallas Mavericks.
That 1980–81 season was a great one for Milwaukee. Their 60–22 record was the third-best in the NBA. The problem was it was also the third-best in the East. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers each won 62 games. The Bucks had a first-round bye but not homecourt advantage for the Eastern Conference semifinals against Philly. Milwaukee pushed the series to a Game 7 in Philadelphia before absorbing a heart-breaking 99–98 loss.
The same scenario played out in 1982. The Bucks won the Central, the Sixers had a better record, and the playoffs were over in the conference semifinals. In 1983, things looked up a bit. Milwaukee swept the Celtics in the conference semifinals. Their consolation was a five-game loss to the Moses Malone-Erving 76ers. The Bucks’ win in Game 4 of the Eastern finals was the only game Philadelphia lost in the postseason.
In 1984, it was Boston that wiped out the Bucks in the conference finals. In 1985, the Sixers swept them in the conference semis. That group’s last conference finals appearance came in 1986 when the Celtics swept them. Milwaukee took Boston seven games in the conference semifinals in 1987.
Seven years brought seven eliminations at the hands of the same two teams. The percentages say Milwaukee should have broken through at least once. The basketball gods thought otherwise.
Sidney Moncrief’s lament for the nearly forgotten Milwaukee Bucks of the 1980s
Today, Sidney Moncrief says one thing sticks out about being part of those Milwaukee Bucks teams in the 1980s. The Bucks losing to one of the same two teams so often left scars.
“The fans stood out the most because they watched us break their hearts and watched our hearts be broken.”Sidney Moncrief
For Moncrief, he appreciated the laurels for his defensive play. That’s not the same as liking what he to do it on a nearly nightly basis.
“Quite frankly, I would rather not be guarding some of the best players in the NBA because it’s a tough task. I just took it as a responsibility as much as it was a challenge. That was something I needed to do to help the team win games. I’d rather just chill on defense and get back on offense, but I didn’t have that luxury.”Sidney Moncrief
Sidney Moncrief is rooting for the Bucks in 2021, even though it can’t take away coming up short in a bygone era.
Historical data courtesy of Basketball-Reference