“The 143-point avalanche”

Outburst triggered dramatic turnabout by “Under Bucks” vs. Denver in 1978

David Thompson
David Thompson tries to shake the Bucks defenders at the MECCA Arena.

The “Under Bucks,” profiled in Bucks.com’s last glance back at Milwaukee Bucks playoff history, raised a few eyebrows with their two-game, opening-round upset of the Phoenix Suns in 1978.

The Bucks, seeded sixth, had dropped three of four regular-season meetings with the third-seeded Suns, but Milwaukee opened the series with a 111-103 victory in Arizona, then came back to the MECCA Arena and completed the series sweep three nights later with a 94-90 win.

Despite the young Bucks’ successful playoff debut, however, few expected much from them in their second-round series against the second-seeded Denver Nuggets, who had won the Midwest Division and received an opening-round bye.

The high-octane Nuggets had ranked second in the league in scoring during the regular season with an average of 111.8 points per outing.

Denver featured the NBA’s second-leading scorer in high-flying David Thompson, the former North Carolina State University All-American. Just four years earlier, Thompson and the Wolfpack had broken the hearts of Marquette University fans, dealing the Warriors a 76-64 loss in a national semifinal game in Greensboro, N.C.

Thompson had lost the closest race in league history for the NBA scoring title, averaging 27.15 points while San Antonio’s George Gervin won out with a 27.21 clip.

In the final game of the regular season April 9, Thompson had gone off for 73 points – the third-highest single-game total in league history behind Wilt Chamberlain’s games of 100 and 78 points – against the Detroit Pistons. Later that night, Gervin scored 63 points against the New Orleans Jazz to become the season scoring king.

Milwaukee had won just one of four regular-season matchups against Denver.

The Bucks fell 133-115 in the Mile High City in the second game of the regular season Oct. 19 as Thompson poured in 36 points. Milwaukee limited Thompson to 20 points in the teams’ next encounter, but dropped a 111-101 decision to the Nuggets in Milwaukee Nov. 8.

Denver took the third game of the teams’ regular-season series 118-111 on its home court Dec. 10 as forward Bobby Jones scored a game-high 25 points before the Bucks salvaged the fourth and final contest 114-109 Jan. 19, overcoming a game-high 34 points by Thompson.

The Bucks didn’t do much in the first two games of the teams’ playoff series to inspire hope for another upset.

Denver took Game 1 119-103 at McNichols Arena as Thompson scored a game-high 27 points, helping offset a 26-point outburst by Bucks backup forward Alex English, who would develop into a Basketball Hall-of-Famer years later with the Nuggets.

The Nuggets took Game 2 by 16 points as well 127-111, this time getting 22 points from center Dan Issel, who matched Marques Johnson’s total for the Bucks.

The Bucks needed to make a dramatic about-face as they returned to Milwaukee for Game 3, and they did exactly that.

Milwaukee not only earned its first victory in the series, but did so emphatically, exploding for 143 points – a total exceeded just once in franchise playoff history (by a 156-point outburst against Philadelphia in the team’s third playoff game ever on March 30, 1970).

The sellout crowd at the MECCA couldn’t have had any idea what they were about to witness, even as the game entered halftime with Milwaukee holding a modest 56-50 lead.

The Bucks, though, ran off 10 consecutive points midway through the third quarter and outscored Denver in that period 40-27.

Milwaukee didn’t let up, either, rattling in 47 more points in the fourth quarter while “holding” the Nuggets to 36 to complete a wild, 143-112 victory.

Johnson, coming off a first-team all-Rookie regular season and a dominant two-game playoff debut in the Bucks’ sweep of Phoenix, led the avalanche against Denver with a game-high 35 points.

Milwaukee’s starting five outscored Denver’s 87-70. Sharp-shooting guard Brian Winters poured in 20 points, backcourt partner Quinn Buckner contributed 14, center John Gianelli scored 10 and forward David Meyers came up with eight.

The Bucks’ bench loomed large in the victory as well. Junior Bridgeman was the game’s second-highest scorer with 22 points, English pitched in 14, and guard Lloyd Walton, center Kent Benson and swingman Ernie Grunfeld combined for 20 more as Milwaukee’s reserves outscored Denver’s 56-42.

Milwaukee’s hot shooting stole the show, but the Bucks got the job done defensively, too, holding Denver to its regular-season average. No Nugget managed more than 16 points in the lopsided Game 3.

The Bucks were most than simply one-hit wonders in the series, too. They dropped game four on their home floor 118-104 as Thompson fired in 34 points, but bounced back to win in Denver 117-112 three nights afterward behind a 34-point performance by Johnson.

Back in Milwaukee two nights later, the Bucks evened the series with a commanding 119-91 win, getting another big contribution off the bench from English, who led them with 21 points.

The Bucks represented well in the decisive Game 7 at Denver, but Thompson’s game-high 37 points led the Nuggets to a 116-110 win, overcoming a 27-point night by Winters and ending the run of the “Under Bucks.”