Rekindling an Overlooked Rivalry

When NBA fans think back on the 1980s few rivalries come immediately to mind. Sixers versus Celtics. Celtics versus Lakers. Pistons versus Celtics. Sixers versus Lakers. However, none of those rivalries were actually the most extensive when measured by the amount of playoff action. 

That honor belongs to the Philadelphia 76ers versus the Milwaukee Bucks. 

The Sixers and Bucks met six times in the span of seven postseasons between 1981 and 1987 for a total of 34 games. Philadelphia won four of those series, Milwaukee two. There was even a coda playoff match in 1991 for good measure.

Those other rivalries by comparison:

  • Sixers versus Celtics had 24 games over four series.

  • Celtics versus Lakers had 19 games over three series.

  • Pistons versus Celtics had 22 games over four series.

  • Sixers versus Lakers had 16 games over three series.

Again, Sixers versus Bucks had 34 games over six series with three of them going to a do-or-die contest.

Sheer volume is only part of a rivalry though. You have to have great players and great games. Well, make no mistake. These showdowns had plenty of star power and plenty of stakes.

Sixers fans will be familiar, of course, with the Hall of Fame likes of Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, and Charles Barkley. The Bucks weren’t far behind in this department, though. Over the years they boasted Sidney Moncrief, Bob Lanier, and Jack Sikma.

Then there were plenty of other players for both teams who were absolute standouts for the era.

Over the course of this rivalry, we could depend on Andrew Toney, Caldwell Jones, and Darryl Dawkins. Milwaukee terrified the opposition with Marques Johnson, Paul Pressey, Brian Winters, and Terry Cummings.

These were no games for the faint of heart.

The first playoff series in this overlooked ‘80s rivalry was in the 1981 Eastern Conference Semifinals. The 62-win Sixers and 60-win Bucks unsurprisingly had a full seven-game series. Despite Marques Johnson’s 36 points, the Sixers survived the final game 99-98 thanks to a pair of Caldwell Jones free throws with 14 seconds remaining.

In 1982 the Sixers got some breathing room in an ECSF rematch, taking a 4-2 victory over the Bucks.

The Sixers won their 1983 Eastern Conference Finals showdown 4-games-to-1, but that final count is deceptive. Despite having an NBA-best 65 wins, the Sixers got their toughest series that postseason from the 51-win Bucks.

Game 1 was an overtime thriller. Terrific defensive plays from Bobby Jones plus reserve guard Clint Richardson scoring all seven Sixers points in the extra period pulled out a narrow 111-109 home win. Games 2 and 3 were also Sixers wins, but they were hard-earned. 

Meanwhile the Bucks did the seemingly impossible in Game 4. The Wisconsin crew ruined Moses Malone’s Fo’ Fo’ Fo’ prediction by defeating the Sixers, 100-94. The series ended in Game 5, but it’s a testament to Milwaukee’s strength that they were the only team to get a lick on the Sixers that postseason. And if the ball bounces a little differently at key moments, this easily could have been a six or seven game series.

After a hiatus in 1984, the rivalry was back on in 1985 with a new look.

Marques Johnson was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for 1983 Rookie of the Year Terry Cummings, while the Sixers had a rookie star Charles Barkley in tow. These two young forwards would go at it over the next few seasons in highly enjoyable fashion.

Despite Cummings averaging 26 points and eight rebounds in the ‘85 ECSF series, he was outmatched by Moses who delivered 25 points and 10 rebounds a game as the Sixers swept the series marking a low point for Milwaukee in this rivalry.

Despite giving a tough fight every time, Milwaukee had lost every series to the Sixers. Unfortunately, the Bucks would exact their revenge in the rivalry’s final showdowns.

In the 1986 ECSF, despite Barkley averaging 28 points and 15 rebounds, the Bucks edged out the Sixers in seven games. And this seventh game was another bona fide classic, much like the 1981 finale, with the Bucks winning 113-112.

The 1987 series was the conclusion of the rivalry. This time the clubs met in the first round as each team was beginning to feel the effects of losing their elder stars. Bobby Jones was retired. Moncrief was gamely battling through leg injuries that would ultimately end his career much too early. Same for Andrew Toney. Dr. J decided to retire at the end of the 1987 season no matter the results of the playoffs, so this series had its own unique sense of desperation.

The pivotal game in this heartstopping series was Game 3 with the series tied 1-1. The Sixers held a 10-point lead going into the fourth quarter, but the Bucks throttled the team in the final frame to win the game, 121-120. This was only fair given that the Sixers had basically pulled the same stunt on Milwaukee in Game 2 by winning 125-122 in overtime after a furious fourth quarter comeback.

After taking Game 4, the Sixers were able to force a do-or-die Game 5, but in Erving’s final NBA game, the Bucks were able to comfortably hold off the Sixers. The Doctor led the team with 24 points, but Sikma’s 18 points and 21 rebounds sealed the deal for Milwaukee as they won 102-89.

Thus concluded one of the best rivalries in NBA history. From 1981 to 1987, the Sixers averaged 56 wins a season and Milwaukee 55 wins making them titans of the era and their playoff matchups must-see TV.

So next time you think of a great 1980s NBA rivalry, don’t just think of Moses battling Kareem or Doc swooping over Bird. 

Those Milwaukee Bucks gave the 76ers as many, if not more, fits than the Lakers and Celtics.