The NBA playoffs are considerably quieter now. "Barkleymania," as the phenomenon was characterized by Terry Cummings, is over until next season, and the survivors of the Eastern Conference semifinal series are the Milwaukee Bucks, a team of loyal wooden soldiers who should soon fall on their swords in the conference finals against the Boston Celtics.
But give the Bucks their due. In beating the Philadelphia 76ers 113-112 on Sunday in the seventh game of the semis at Milwaukee Arena, the Bucks shook several monkeys off their backs. Not the least of their tormentors was the 260-pound Charles Barkley, a nemesis throughout this hotly contested series. The Bucks had never before won the seventh game of a playoff series. They hadn't eliminated Philadelphia in the postseason since 1970, and in four of the last five years the 76ers had kicked out the Bucks, a happenstance that had made Milwaukee's string of divisional championships (now seven straight) as meaningless as Monopoly money at the blackjack table.
So, raise a glass to Don Nelson's warriors...while they're still around. Just how long that will be depends largely on the Celtics. And how did Milwaukee defense Boston during the season? "Not very well," says assistant coach Garry St. Jean ruefully. The Bucks lost all five regular-season games to Boston, and there's not much reason to assume a new trend will start now. In fact, there's none at all. Sidney Moncrief, who played as brave a playoff series as anyone since the Knicks' Willis Reed hobbled onto the Madison Square Garden floor against the Lakers in 1970, is walking gingerly on a painful left heel. Cummings has a dislocated finger, the one with which he would salute Barkley if he were that kind of guy. He jammed it late in the first quarter of Sunday's game, screamed in agony when Dr. David Haskell yanked it back into place in the Milwaukee dressing room, then came back out and finished the game with 27 points and eight rebounds. To add injury to injury, Ricky Pierce, the Bucks' valuable off-the-bench scorer, has a sprained left ankle.
And everyone, especially the Bucks' three-headed center of Randy Breuer, Alton Lister and Paul Mokeski, is just plain worn out from leaning on and listening to Barkley. After all, a guy who averages 27.6 points and 14.7 rebounds while trashing your fans, knocking one of your centers on his backside and getting the Reverend Terry Cummings into a verbal mudslinging match, tends to tucker you out.
But it was Julius Erving, not Barkley, who held the fate of the Sixers in his hands Sunday. With two seconds left on the shot clock and Philadelphia trailing by one point, Erving let fly with a wide-open jump shot from 15 feet. Barkley headed for the boards, but ran into Cummings. " Cummings sent him flying," said Sixer coach Matt Guokas, "but I wouldn't expect to get that call in this situation." Said Cummings: "Well, yes, I did get a body on him." Barkley didn't say anything. For a while, anyway. Nelson watched the flight of the ball, convinced his personal nightmare against the Sixers was about to continue. "When I saw Doc take the last shot, I knew, I was positive, he would make it," said the Bucks' coach.
But the ball bounced off the back rim, Pierce scrambled for the rebound, and the game was over. "I was the most surprised person in the whole world when it didn't go in," said Nelson. "Doc's made so many big ones over the years you just expect it." Said Erving: "It was a good shot. I just missed it." And by that small margin of error were the Sixers eliminated, with only the No. 1 pick in the NBA lottery drawing earlier that afternoon to appease them.
It was fitting that the series came down to one shot, for there was little separating these teams throughout. "A classic series with a classic finish," said Erving. "It's part of the beauty of the game to have a battle like this." Only Doc, the NBA's Rod McKuen, would put it that way, but it's true. More than by anyone else, though, the series was defined by the heart of Moncrief and the soul train named Barkley.
The Crisco Kid alienated Milwaukee's fans even before Game 1 when he suggested that the Bucks have only two true stars, Moncrief and Cummings. Never mind that it's true. Barkley is an enigma to the blue-collar fans of Milwaukee. He plays hard and tough and relentlessly, but there's too much slide in his stride, too much talking, too much emoting. In what became the norm for the series, he was booed relentlessly during the opener in Milwaukee; Barkley got revenge by scoring 31 points, grabbing 20 rebounds and hitting two key free throws in a 118-112 Sixer victory, a game in which Moncrief didn't play.
Returning for Game 2, Moncrief (16 points, six rebounds, five assists) led the Bucks to a 119-107 win in which they overcame a 26-point, 15-board effort by Barkley. It was at this point that Cummings announced that he was sick and tired of Barkleymania. Barkley, in turn, told reporters to tell Cummings "to go bleep himself," though he added, "but do it in a religious way."
Game 3 in Philly: No Moncrief, lots of Barkley (29 points, 13 rebounds), and the Sixers won 107-103. Game 4: Barkley starred (37, 14), but Moncrief was back (13 points, five rebounds, four assists) and the Bucks won 109-104 to tie the series at 2-2.