Before they acquired Bob Lanier during the all-star break, the Milwaukee Bucks were considered a team of the future.With such young exciting players as Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Brian Winters and Sidney Moncrief, it seemed only a matter of time before they challenged Seattle, Los Angeles and Phoenix for supremacy in NBA's Western Conference.

The success came sooner than expected when the deal was made with Detroit for the 6-foot-11, 260-pound Lanier. The Bucks have pushed the defending NBA champion Sonics to seven games in their Western semifinal playoffs, which will end Sunday in Seattle.

Even with Bridgeman out with a back injury and Meyers ineffective with a bad knee, the Bucks almost eliminated the Sonics Friday before falling, 86-85, at Milwaukee Arena, to even the series at 3-3.

Sunday's game will be played at the Seattle Coliseum because of a conflict at the Sonic's regular home, the Kingdome.

Regardless of the outcome, the Bucks have proven their legitimacy and Lanier, despite all his disappointments with the Pistons, has shown he is still a dominating force in the NBA.

"I guess I underestimated the value of having an old veteran on the team," said Buck Coach Don Nelson. "I didn't realize that until Bob got here."

Lanier has made the Bucks stable and given them a leader, the one thing they had lacked.

Lanier was traded for Kent Benson, who was not intimidating, or even effective for that matter, at either end of the floor.

"I felt I could help this squad right away," Lanier said. "You're leery at first in any new situation. I was leery because the thing you worry about is not to be a disruptive factor. A lot of times you can come to a squad and not have a lot of talent. But if your kind of talent doesn't jell with theirs, or if you come there trying be what you were someplace else -- like a top scorer, then that can have a very disruptive effect. So what I try to do is just blend in as best as possible and use the skills that I have to make Milwaukee a better team."

Lanier is hesitant to say that he has been the difference in the Bucks but he does realize that things may not have turned out like they have if the trade for him hadn't been made.

"I think they needed a good strong force inside and I think Harvey Catchings and myself do that."

Lanier has made the young Bucks even better. Before Lanier, when the Bucks needed a basket they had to rely on an outside shot from usually either Winters or Bridgeman or a one-on-one move from Johnson. Now they have a higher percentage alternative -- get the ball low to Lanier.

Against Seattle Friday, Lanier scored 10 of his 19 points in the third quarter when the Bucks were overcoming a 14-point deficit. p

But with Bridgeman out and Winters not hitting, the Sonics collapsed around Lanier and that stymied Milwaukee.

One thing that becomes evident about the Bucks right away is that they hustle -- each of them -- both offensive and defensively.

Their series with Seattle is a classic example of one team -- Seattle -- that has role players who do their jobs well against another team -- Milwaukee -- of all-around athletes who are learning how to play together and getting by on a lot of emotion and plain old raw basketball ability.

"The only difference between us and Millwaukee is we're the champions said Seattle forward John Johnson. "We're the team with the experience."

The most exciting Buck of all could be 6-4 rookie Moncrief. He is an incredible offensive rebounder for a guard and is so talented inside that it is a mismatch, no matter who is on him. He scored 15 points Friday, and had 11 of Milwaukee's 18 points near the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth when the Bucks tied the score.

Moncrief a superb leaper, was also called for goaltending four times.

The young Bucks still haven't tapped their potential yet and they still rely on emotion sometimes to get them through. The Bucks went through a slam-dunking routine during Friday's pregame warmup. It showed how psyched up they were and it also got the capacity crowd revved up. But it wasn't enough.

"This game wasn't played on emotion," Seattle guard Fred Brown said. "It was played on experience and knowledge and in the trenches. It was defense and rebounding and physical."

That's precisely the edge that the Sonics have over the Bucks. "Right now we have control of the situation," said Seattle's Paul Silas.

"When we do what we do best they can't play with us," added John Johnson.

"When they tied the score late in the game we realize then that we could lose over our crowns right there. We sensed that and did what we had to do. We didn't want to give up our title and I don't think we're going to," added Dennis Johnson.

Bridgeman is doubtful Sunday and Meyers is also questionable, but Nelson isn't worried.

"This team hasn't let me down yet and I don't expect it will now."