The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers shared more than sharply pointed elbows and numerous bumps and bruises during their recently completed NBA Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series.
During the series' 13 days, executives from both sides wondered if all the emotion being spent was actually worth it. After all, the winner faced another best-of-seven series, this time against the Boston Celtics, whose 67-15 regular-season record was the best in the NBA and the fourth-best of all time.
"Now we get to go to the altar," said one member of the Bucks' front office after his team's 113-112 victory Sunday at the Mecca in Milwaukee.
Just how sacrificial a role Milwaukee will play will be determined beginning tonight in Boston Garden. Game 2 of the series also will be played there before the series shifts to Milwaukee for games Saturday and Sunday.
All signs seem to point to another Celtics appearance in the finals. In compiling their stellar regular-season mark, the Celtics lost only once at home. Including the postseason, the team is on a 37-game winning streak on the parquet floor.
The Bucks didn't beat the Celtics in Boston or in Milwaukee this year, losing five straight to Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, et al. The Celtics disposed of the Atlanta Hawks, four games to one, in their semifinal series and have had a week to rest. Milwaukee was extended to the limit in a very difficult series.
Still, both sides say the fatigue factor may be misleading. McHale, for one, was said to be rooting for the Bucks to end their series against the 76ers in Philadelphia on Friday, which would have ensured an earlier start for the conference finals. The Bucks had a week of rest before facing the 76ers, who were taken to five games in their opening-round series by the Washington Bullets. Yet when the semifinals began two days later, Philadelphia won the opening game.
"When you just win a series, especially a close one, you feel good about yourself and about your team," said Milwaukee swing man Paul Pressey. "You feel like you're on a roll and you want to keep going."
Bucks Coach Don Nelson, a stalwart contributor to many of the Celtics' 15 championship teams, downplays his team's futility against Boston this season. "I've never entered an NBA game that I didn't think I could win," he said.
Against the 76ers, Nelson either showed great acumen or was just plain lucky. There was the judicious handling of all-star guard Sidney Moncrief, hobbled throughout the series by torn tissue in his left heel. He played only in Games 2, 4 and 7 -- all Bucks victories.
Nelson also used his centers -- Randy Breuer, Alton Lister and Paul Mokeski -- to guard Charles Barkley, the 76ers' one-man wrecking crew. By the end of the series, the second-year forward was physically spent from the constant pounding.
And who's to say that fatigue wasn't a factor in Game 7, coming less than 48 hours after a sixth game in which Philadelphia's starters played nearly the entire game while most of the Bucks' starters watched from the sidelines down the stretch?
How to stop the Celtics is Nelson's next dilemma.
"The key will be in the matchups," said Atlanta's Mike Fratello, this season's coach of the year. "Each staff will sit down and try to figure out where they can attack the other, but then the question is, do you have the personnel to exploit what you perceive to be the weakness? Let's say hypothetically that a team is weak in the middle defensively; if your center can't score, what good does it do to know it?"
Fratello, whose team was runner-up to the Bucks in the Central Division, thinks Milwaukee will have to make a number of important defensive decisions.
"Defense is their strength," he said. "It's predicated on double- and triple-teaming a team, taking them out of their first option and forcing them to move the basketball around more than they would like. But that's one of the things the Celtics do best, ball movement."
Although the Hawks lost to Boston six times during the regular season and won only once in the playoffs, they gave the Celtics trouble for the same reason the Los Angeles Lakers were able to win the title from Boston last June. Atlanta and the Lakers have outstanding athletes who were able to play fast-break basketball against Boston.
That description doesn't really apply to the Bucks, considering Moncrief's condition and the fact that forward Terry Cummings, the team's leading playoff scorer, played in the finale against Philadelphia with a badly dislocated middle finger on his left hand. Sixth man Ricky Pierce also played with a sprained ankle.
Fratello calls the Bucks "opportunity runners, in that they take advantage of situations on the floor to score quick points, and once that starts to happen, they'll continue to speed up the game."
All indications are, however, that Milwaukee will have to be opportunistic in more ways than one to make this series close.