At this point in the National Basketball Association playoffs, there is no more respected team than the Milwaukee Bucks, who have shown little physical restraint in their battle with the defending NBA champion Seattle SuperSonics.
Milwaukee was a good team even before it acquired 6 ft. 11 in. center Bob Lanier from the Detroit Pistons in a February trade. Although the Bucks gave up some heavy bread to get Bob, including their first-round pick in the forthcoming June college draft, it now looks as though the Pistons should have asked for more.
Once Lanier joined Milwaukee, the Bucks increased in value, in crowd appeal, and in overall performance. Only one team, Los Angeles, had a better record (23 -6) after the league's All-Star break.
"As soon as we got Lanier, I knew we could play with anybody," said head coach Don Nelson, who once enjoyed the luxury of being a teammate of Bill Russell's on the old Boston Celtics. "Bob not only takes up a lot of space under the basket, but he'll score and he'll also get you the clutch rebounds. For us, Lanier could be the last piece in the puzzle."
Bob, who for years had outstanding statistics with a Detroit team that kept finding new ways to waste his talents, seems to feel exactly the same way.
"With the Pistons, the main burden was mine, and after a while it became an emotional thing," Lanier explained. "Often it didn't make any difference how well I played, we still couldn't win. This wasn't the first time I had asked to be traded.
"But the Bucks are a team I know I can help, and whose personnel, in turn, will help me. Milwaukee's got the shooters and it's also got the tough defense. Even though I'm probably playing fewer minutes with the Bucks, I think I'm actually contributing more."
When Lanier first put on a Milwaukee uniform, the Bucks were five games behind Kansas City in the Midwest Division and not all that consistent. But by winning 11 of its next 13 games, Milwaukee established a pace that eventually resulted in its first division title since 1976.
Perhaps the most amazing thing was how quickly Lanier and his new teammates were able to blend their talents. There was none of the usual talk about needing time to get to know one another on the court or questions about who would assume the role of team leader.
Bob got the immediate respect his skills deserved, then played like a man trying to say "thank you" to his teammates.
Some of those teammates are All-Stars in their own right, such as forward Marques Johnson, who led the Bucks in scoring (21.7) during the regular season, and Junior Bridgeman, whom many consider the best "sixth man" in the league.
Johnson is a sky walker who can also play defense, score in heavy traffic, and still log 40 minutes a game without drawing a deep breath. Bridgeman is probably the best at coming off a bench and dominating a game offensively since John Havlicek retired. Junior also gets his share of rebounds.
But there are others like forward Dave Meyers, who would dive into a cement mixer to corral a loose ball, and guard Quinn Buckner, whose barbed-wire defense and plain old-fashioned tenacity is hazardous to any opponent trying to shoot.
The coaching situation is unique, since it is shared almost equally between Don Nelson and his assistant, John Killilea. It was Killilea who used to set the defenses for the Boston Celtics when Tom Heinsohn was coach and Nelson still a player.
John now provides that same service for Nelson, plus all major scouting reports. In fact, Killilea even coached the Bucks by himself for two weeks this season when Don was hospitalized.
So Milwaukee, in a little more than two months, has exchanged its traditional low profile for one that now rivals the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building.
In the playoffs, it has the SuperSonics as nervous as a cat's tail in a room full of rocking chairs.