Controlling the game from start to finish -- and without all-star guard Sidney Moncrief in the lineup -- the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, 113-108, tonight to take a 3-2 lead in their best-of-seven NBA Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series.
Game 6 will be played at the Spectrum in Philadelphia Friday night.
Tonight's victory gave the Bucks their first playoff series lead over the 76ers since 1970 -- a span that encompasses five postseason meetings. With another victory, the Bucks would advance to the conference final against the Boston Celtics.
Moncrief, suffering from a torn muscle in his left heel, had missed Games 1 and 3 of the series. In both contests, the Bucks lost what had appeared to be commanding leads of 18 and nine points and fell to defeat. Despite their overall dominance tonight, the Bucks endured a few scary moments when a 108-101 lead with 2:42 to play was suddenly whittled to 108-106 with two minutes remaining.
The Bucks were able to survive the 76ers' late rush because on this occasion they found a more than suitable replacement for the stability and leadership usually provided by Moncrief. Whether it was rebounding, passing or scoring in crucial situations that was needed, forward/guard Paul Pressey provided it.
Pressey, a fourth-year player from Tulsa, scored 23 points in the game, 13 in the fourth quarter. He also added 16 assists and 10 rebounds as he quite simply refused to let the Bucks fall to defeat.
"We needed more inspired play from Paul. He had to move his game up a notch," said Bucks Coach Don Nelson. "I reminded him that he's one of the top players in the league and tonight he showed it."
Pressey had averaged 16 points, eight assists and three rebounds in the previous four games of the series, but his overall game had lacked its normal flair. That didn't seem to bother him, however.
"My job is to not do too much," he said. "I'm supposed to try to get everyone involved. Tonight I knew I had to go to the basket more."
His performance also made Nelson look ingenious for his decision not to use Moncrief. Before the game, there was much speculation as to which way the Bucks would play the "should he or shouldn't he" scenario. Playing in every other game, Moncrief had twice led the Bucks to victory, the last time on Monday night, 109-104.
One school of thought held that he should attempt to play, to help ensure a Milwaukee victory. Another said that the team should have been capable of winning here at the Mecca at least once without him. Another question was that if at some point Moncrief would have to play in back-to-back games, should it be in Games 4 and 5 or in Games 6 and 7?
Tonight's victory ended the argument. "We're going to hold him out until Game 7," Nelson said. And should the Bucks win on Friday? "Then he'll be ready for Game 1 against the Celtics ."
From the Bucks' perspective, it's nice to have options. And that situation as much as any other has been the major factor in their ability to weather the part-time loss of Moncrief and still manage to take the series lead.
Pressey, for example, starts at small forward but runs the Milwaukee offense from the point guard position.
The flexibility is even more apparent on defense. In this series, Pressey has guarded players ranging from 6-foot-6, 250-pound power forward Charles Barkley to 6-1, 180-pound point guard Maurice Cheeks. The same has applied to Ricky Pierce and even to centers Randy Breuer and Alton Lister, a pair of seven-footers who have spent the bulk of their time guarding Barkley.
Combined with 6-11 center Paul Mokeski, the idea has been for the trio to win a war of attrition against Barkley.
Although he has averaged some 31 points and 15.5 rebounds in the series, the Bucks may have turned a corner of sorts in tonight's game. Barkley led the 76ers with 29 points but had a merely mortal eight rebounds -- the first time in the series he has been in single digits on the backboards.
"Charles was more visibly tired than I've seen him in a long, long time," said 76ers Coach Matt Guokas. "We rely on him for so many different things and it gets tough. They have so many people beating on him and it's wearing him down."
Some of Barkley's frustration began to show in the fourth period tonight. Entangled with Mokeski near midcourt, Barkley freed himself and floored Mokeski with his right forearm. The men then squared off but no punches were thrown.
After a brief consultation, referees Hugh Evans and Paul Mihalik called a double technical foul, ruling that Barkley did not intentionally throw a punch. No free throws were awarded after the fracas and the teams lined up at midcourt for a jump ball.
Of Milwaukee's final 22 points, 14 came at the foul line. Fittingly, nine were by Pressey, who also scored two of the four field goals in that stretch and assisted on the other two baskets.
Forward Terry Cummings also scored 23 points for Milwaukee, and Cheeks had 27 for Philadelphia.