The “Under-Bucks” of 1978
Remembering Milwaukee’s first playoff upset
Brian Winters puts up a shot against the Denver Nuggets.
For the second time in as many years and the third time in six seasons, National Basketball Association fans have seen a No. 1 seed bounced by a No. 8 seed in the opening round of the Playoffs.
The Chicago Bulls, who matched the San Antonio Spurs for the best NBA's best regular-season record at 50-16 and earned home-court advantage for the entire playoffs, were dismantled by the Philadelphia 76ers, four games to two, and will watch the balance of the playoffs from home.
The 76ers, who edged the Milwaukee Bucks during the final week of the regular season for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, capitalized after Bulls guard Derrick Rose, the 2010-11 NBA Most Valuable Player, sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the first game of the teams' playoff series and was lost for the balance of the playoffs.
Chicago also played the final three games of the series without starting center Joakim Noah, who suffered a left ankle sprain in Game 3.
Philly became only the fifth No. 8 seed ever to win a playoff series over a No. 1 seed, duplicating what the Memphis Grizzlies achieved against the San Antonio Spurs last spring and the stunner the Golden State Warriors staged against the Dallas Mavericks in 2007.
The first time the Bucks played an opening-round playoff series as underdogs, they did their city quite proud.
The year was 1978, and it was the third year of a rebuilding phase for the Bucks, who had traded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Walt Wesley to the Los Angeles Lakers for Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, David Meyers, Junior Bridgeman and future considerations on June 16, 1975.
With Abdul-Jabbar manning the middle, the Bucks had made the playoffs five times in six seasons. They fell short in 1975, then managed to make the field the season after the big trade, only to exit with an opening-round loss to the Detroit :Pistons.
Milwaukee did not reach the playoffs in 1977, but landed three of the top 11 picks in the 1977 NBA Draft -- Indiana center Kent Benson at No. 1, UCLA forward Marques Johnson at No. 3 and Tennessee swingman Ernie Grunfeld at No. 11.
The three rookies—especially Johnson, who along with Bernard King lost a fierce, three-way battle for NBA Rookie of the Year to Phoenix's Walter Davis – played key roles in a resurgence by Milwaukee, which finished the 1977-78 regular season second in the NBA's Midwest Division at 44-38, four games off the pace of the Denver Nuggets.
Winters led Milwaukee in scoring at 19.9 points per outing and represented the Bucks in the NBA All-Star Game. Johnson was close behind at 19.5 ppg and led Bucks rebounders at 10.5 rpg. Point guard Quinn Buckner made the Bucks go offensively and defensively, leading the team in assists with 456 and in steals with 188.
Meyers contributed 14.7 ppg and was a warrior on defense, and Bridgeman chipped in with 13.8 ppg. in the role of sixth man.
Other components to Milwaukee's upswing were John Gianelli, who started the majority of the games at center and averaged 8.5 ppg; Alex English, who contributed 9.8 ppg and joined Bridgeman to give the Bucks one of the NBA's premier off-the-bench duos; Benson and Grunfeld, who averaged 7.7 ppg and 6.9 ppg as rookies; and former Marquette University standout Lloyd Walton as backup point guard.
The Bucks received a No. 6 seed for the playoffs and were matched against the No. 3 Phoenix Suns, who were runners-up to Portland in the Pacific Division.
The Suns had defeated the Bucks three times in four meetings during the regular season.
There were 22 teams in the NBA in 1977-78, and 16 of them made the playoff field.
The opening-round series were pressure-packed, best-of-three confrontations in which an off night usually translated into a ticket home.
The Suns featured sharp-shooting guard Paul Westphal, who had finished sixth among NBA scorers during the regular season at 25.2 points per game, and the sleek Davis, a former University of North Carolina All-American who had ranked ninth in the league in scoring at 24.2 ppg in his rookie campaign.
The Phoenix lineup also included rugged veteran power forward Garfield Heard, center Alvan Adams, defensive stopper Don Buse at guard and a supporting cast that included Ron Lee, Greg Griffin, Mike Bratz, Alvin Scott and Dennis Awtrey.
The Bucks had to open the series April 11, 1978, in Arizona, where they had dropped both of their regular-season meetings with the Suns, the second one in a 132-126 thriller.
Phoenix began to take control of the game midway through the first half and mounted a 12-point advantage in the second quarter, but Milwaukee never relented.
The Bucks battled back to tie the score at 89-89 and outscored their hosts 14-2 during a six-minute stretch in the fourth quarter behind the hot shooting of Johnson, who scored 10 of his 24 points in the final period, and Winters, who pumped in eight of his 31 points in the quarter.
Johnson complemented his 24 points with 16 rebounds in his first career playoff game, and Meyers delivered a 22-point performance as the Bucks rode back to Milwaukee with a 111-103 victory, firmly entrenched in the driver's seat of the series.
Davis gave Milwaukee a lot of trouble in the series' first game on his way to a 31-point performance, but he was outshone by his rookie rival in Game 2 in Milwaukee.
Johnson scored 15 consecutive points to stake the Bucks to a lead and they outlasted the Suns 94-90 to complete a sweep of the series. The dynamic forward totaled a game- and season-high 33 points while Davis managed just 19 for Phoenix.
The Bucks got another big outing from Winters, who poured in 24 points to help offset a 32-point outburst by Westphal. Gianelli kicked in 12 points, and English scored 10 off the bench.
The victory advanced the Bucks to the Western Conference Semifinals, where they put up a valiant battle in losing to Denver, four games to three.
Johnson finished third among all NBA Playoff scorers in 1978 at 24 ppg. English led the entire playoff field in field-goal shooting at .615, and Buckner averaged league playoff bests of 6.9 assists and 2 steals per game. The Bucks did not qualify for the playoffs in 1979, but six members of their 1978 cast provided the foundation of a team that enjoyed a run of 10 consecutive playoff trips during the 1980s.