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May has avoided injury with the Bucks and averaged 9.1 points and 19.2 minutes per game. "There are at least six or seven games that we wouldn't have won without him," Nelson says.
May's signing made a happy man out of Milwaukee Point Guard Quinn Buckner, a teammate of May's at Indiana. "I was so tickled when we got him I didn't know what to do with myself," Buckner says. "He's playing the way he did in college. I have total confidence in him; I'd give him the ball anywhere on the court. I wouldn't do that with everyone on this team."
Ironically, May might not be a Buck today had Marques Johnson been in camp when the season started. Marques held out when the renegotiation of his six-year pact hit snags, first over the amount of money he'd receive and then over the manner of payment. Johnson reportedly wanted to play in a bigger city, so he'd have a greater opportunity for a career in television or movies. To that end, during the negotiations Johnson supposedly spent his time shooting commercials in L.A. instead of hoops in Milwaukee.
Actually, Johnson says, the time was spent doing a lot of nothing. "I was trying to let things work below the surface," Johnson says. "I went public the first time and things got crazy." Since he signed an eight-year contract worth an estimated $8 million and returned to the Bucks, Johnson through Sunday had averaged 14.4 points a game. He'd also missed two games with a sprained ankle, which is to say, he fit right in.
Although Nelson has often said that his team is built around Johnson, the Bucks weren't rattled by his absence, or by the injuries—mainly because of their system. Under Nelson, who has won 254 games in less than five seasons as a coach, the Bucks probably get more repetitive instruction than any team in the league. "We can attack a team's weaknesses rather than only being able to depend on one man," Nelson says of his methods.
As a result, the Milwaukee offense is a series of options upon options, with the choice of which option to use depending on who is on the court. With Marques Johnson at small forward a particular play may result in a shot being taken from 10 feet in. With Bridgeman the same play will yield a 15-foot jumper. The options work so well that seven Milwaukee players are averaging 12 or more points. At the top of the list stands the 6'4" Moncrief, who at week's end not only led the Bucks in scoring, with 20.0 points per game, but also in rebounds, with 6.7 a game, and assists, 5.2. He was the only player in the league topping his team in all three categories. To boot, Moncrief had 368 foul-shooting attempts, fifth highest in the NBA and almost twice as many as that of the closest Buck, Mickey Johnson. Moncrief had made 295 of those, for an .802 free-throw percentage.
Those are some of the more quantifiable accomplishments of a player who Nelson thought might be too undisciplined when he joined the Bucks from Arkansas in 1979. "I remember seeing a facetious quote from Sidney earlier this year," Nelson says. "It went, 'I was a fundamentally unsound player when I joined the Bucks, but due to Coach Nelson's great diligence and patience....' "
If nothing else, four years playing for Coach Eddie Sutton at Arkansas left Moncrief well schooled in the basics—especially on defense. In the finals of the 1979 NCAA Midwest Regionals in Cincinnati, the Razorbacks were being destroyed by Indiana State's Larry Bird. Despite a five-inch height disadvantage, Moncrief was assigned to guard Bird and held him to six points—two field goals and two free throws—in the game's final 10 minutes, which almost won the game for the Hogs; they lost 73-71 to the eventual national finalists. Bird remembers that game, as well as a Celtics-Bucks encounter earlier this season when Moncrief, playing at small forward, held him to 15 points. Moncrief ran the club's spread offense and scored 29 points and had 12 assists. "I was more of a scorer in college but he still did the job on me," Bird says. "He does everything you're supposed to do on defense and doesn't take any short cuts. Plus he does it every night."
Moncrief's blossoming as an offensive star—he averaged only 16.9 points a game in college—has resulted in a change in the Bucks' system. "We've learned how to adapt to him," Nelson says. "We used to run plays for him and expect him to do the same things that our other off guard, Brian Winters, did: come around the pick and shoot the jump shot. But he likes different shots."
Now Nelson seems willing to cater to Moncriefs every whim. Two weeks ago Moncrief was fighting a cold and asked Nelson about the heat at the local high school where the Bucks would practice at 11 o'clock the next day. At the workout Moncrief told Nelson that the gym was satisfactorily heated. "Good," replied Nelson, "I was here at 6 this morning stoking the fire so you'd be warm enough."