When the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns meet on Sunday night, it marks yet another chance for the Bucks to finally stop a 23-game losing streak on the road in Phoenix. Aside from being the second-longest active streak of its kind in the NBA (the Spurs have beaten the Warriors 27 straight times at home), it also represents an opportunity for the Suns to tie a franchise record for consecutive home wins against a single team. With the current iteration of the Bucks already 0-5 in road games, it seemed like a good time to look back at a simple, better time. A time when a road game against the Suns was just another game. A time when the Bucks (gasp) actually won in Phoenix. Beyond the jump is the retro recap of Milwaukee's 115-107 road win over Phoenix on February 21, 1987.
Holy Fast Basketball, Batman! The first thing that jumped off the page when looking at the Basketball-Reference box score for this game is the pace at which it was played. The estimate of 105 possessions signals a speed we have not seen the likes of for quite a while in the NBA. Just for some perspective, only one team in the last fifteen years has even cracked the century mark for average pace (09-10 Golden State Warriors at 100.4) according to Basketball-Reference. For anyone who wishes the current game featured more up and down action, this is the bygone era you would have loved. In the 1986-87 season alone, 16 teams had an average pace above 100. Think about that for a second. Oh by the way, while you were thinking, a team from the 86-87 season would have already used their possession and given up a bucket on the other end.
Oldies But Goodies. The Bucks were once a proud franchise with a strong winning tradition. It might be difficult for younger fans to appreciate, and since I had yet to celebrate my second birthday when the Bucks last won in the state of Arizona I suppose I am included, but Milwaukee fans once expected the team to win on most nights. The 115-107 win over the Suns pushed the 86-87 squad's record to 35-21 on the way to a 50-32 finish and an appearance in the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals where they lost in seven games to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Boston Celtics.
What Happened In The Game. Ten-year veteran guard John Lucas and fourth-year swingman Ricky Pierce had big nights for the Bucks, but the team did get off to a slow start that would seem familiar to fans of the current team. The Bucks only scored 4 points in the first four minutes of action (note the pace factoids from above to get a sense of this ineptitude) and fell behind 39-33 at the end of the first quarter. The Bucks had a hard time stopping Larry Nance (21 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 67.7% TS) and let Walter Davis do some volume scoring (27 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 turnovers, 54.5% TS), but the team rallied behind Lucas (24 points, 10 assists, 6 rebounds, 62.1% TS) and Pierce (22 points, 8 rebounds, 66.6% TS) to take a late 109-95 lead with only 87 seconds left in the game. Ricky Pierce had flu-like symptoms entering the game, and did not mince his words when asked how he felt after the game: "I feel like [bleep]."
Even so, the game had some bits of intrigue left over. The Suns manufactured a quick run behind a steal and layup by Kenny Gattison and a three-pointer by Jeff Hornacek to close the gap to 109-104 with 55 seconds still remaining, but when head coach Don Nelson called a timeout to let the Bucks regroup, the scoreboard incorrectly displayed a 109-103 margin. The score did get corrected during the break, but nobody felt the need to inform the Bucks about the change before the timeout ended. Don Nelson called BS on the whole situation, which the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel archives have preserved for our enjoyment:
We came out of the huddle and our six-point lead was down to five. I wasn't told about it until it was too late. They mentioned it in passing. 'Oh, by the way, you're only ahead by five.' We came into the huddle with a six-point lead and went out with a five-point lead. That's a good trick. We should try that a few times in Milwaukee. But we're too damn honest in Milwaukee.
That last line feels like a great tag line for Brew Hoop, so maybe I can work it in somewhere in the future. Good old Don Nelson, gotta love him. Anyways, the Bucks managed to close the game out despite the scoring error (shenanigans?) and actually won a road game in Phoenix. It is possible, people. It can be done. Right?
Note: Bucks forward Jerry Reynolds spent much of the week heading into the game in Don Nelson's doghouse due to a little white lie he got caught in after the all-star break. Turns out Reynolds told the team he was still too sick to make the trip with the team to New York on February 11th, but was spotted in a local night club the same night of the game. Oops. He played only 3 minutes against the Suns after averaging nearly 18 minutes per game before the incident.
Other Note: A title like this would never make it past an editor now, but there used to be a time where newspaper editors didn't blink twice at a title like: Tar Heels Bomb Clemson. In other words, it has been a long time since the Bucks have won in Phoenix.