The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers had one of the best rivalries in the 1980s NBA. The teams met in the playoffs six times in seven seasons from 1981 to 1987. The results were nip and tuck over the years with four series wins for Philly and two for the Brew City.
Our time today isn’t for recalling the entirety of this overlooked struggle, but to focus particularly on what two young forwards brought to the proceedings. Terry Cummings versus Charles Barkley was the marquee match-up within the match-up during the 76ers and Bucks playoff showdowns in 1985, 1986, and 1987.
Each played with a combination of awesome power and speed, but they did it differently. Cummings was taller and slimmer with his power attacks being more like slicing strikes. Plus he had a better jump shot than Chuck and was more nimble off-the-dribble. Barkley meanwhile was like a steamroller. If he lacked some of the grace of Cummings he made up for it with his powerhouse stoutness able to barrell through taller opponents and carving out space to create room for shots. Their additions midway through the Bucks-Sixers showdowns of the 80s injected some new vigorous life into the rivalry.
After two seasons in San Diego, Terry Cummings arrived in Milwaukee with fellow exiled Clippers Craig Hodges and Ricky Pierce. Appended to holdovers Sidney Moncrief, Paul Pressey, and Alton Lister, these new-look Bucks jumped up from very good (50 wins) in 1984 to excellent (59 wins) in 1985. Cummings was recognized as an NBA All-Star and a member of the All-NBA 2nd Team as he averaged 23.6 PPG and 9.1 RPG. The PF carried over his regular season magic to postseason.
In his playoff debut in the Eastern Conference First Round vs. the Chicago Bulls, T.C. averaged 29.5 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 63.4% FG, and 84.8% FT. In the process, the Bucks beat his hometown Chicago Bulls 3-1 to advance to the Semi-Finals.
Things weren’t quite as easy there since the 58-win 76ers awaited. Featuring Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks, and Andrew Toney, the Sixers were seeking to recapture the NBA crown after a lackluster defense of their 1983 title. Remember, the were upset in the 1984 playoffs by the New Jersey Nets.
The Sixers may have been older, but with the addition of rookie Charles Barkley to the mix, they were not to be underestimated.
In Game 1, the Bucks were embarrassed on their home-court 127-105. After a stellar first round, Cummings was not exempt from the shame as he mustered 17 points but ZERO rebounds in the depantsing. Philly reserve Clint Richardson annihilated Milwaukee with 22 points on 11-12 shooting. Meanwhile, Barkley also came off the bench with 19 points and eight rebounds in just 21 minutes.
Terry rebounded mightily in Game 2 with 41 points and 12 carooms, but the Bucks still lost 112-108. Games 3 and 4 also ended in defeat for the Bucks as they were swept out the playoffs. An ignominous end to their 59-win season.
However, this series was merely the warmup for the T.C. - Sir Charles revelry to come in 1986, which was the apex of their showdown.
For the 1985-86 season, the Bucks won 57 games and yet again the best in their division for the seventh year in a row. Meanwhile Philadelphia had mustered 54 wins.
As the two teams clashed in the ECSF again, there were serious injury problems for both. The Bucks only had Moncrief for three of the series’ seven games as he battled a heel injury and chronic knee pain that would prematurely end his career. The Sixers meanwhile lost Malone late in the regular season to an eye injury and he missed the playoffs entirely. Also missing for the Sixers was Toney whose bad foot problems also led to a premature retirement.
So, unlike 1985, the center attraction in 1986 was Cummings vs. Barkley.
Barkley was otherworldly in Game 1 with 31 points, 20 rebounds, six assists, six steals, and two blocks. The Sixers rallied in the fourth quarter for a 118-112 win in Milwaukee. In Game 2 Cummings had his say with 30 points and 15 rebounds on 14-21 FGs. After the game, you could tell the two men were wearing on each others’ nerves:
Returning for Game 2, Moncrief (16 points, six rebounds, five assists) led the Bucks to a 119-107 win in which they overcame a 26-point, 15-board effort by Barkley. It was at this point that Cummings announced that he was sick and tired of Barkleymania. Barkley, in turn, told reporters to tell Cummings “to go bleep himself,” though he added, “but do it in a religious way.”
And so on it went.
In Game 3, the Bucks were again without Moncrief. The Barkley (29 points and 13 rebounds) and Cummings (27 points and nine rebounds) battle continued apace. Joining the breaches were sixth men Pierce (23 points, 9-16 FGs) for Milwaukee and Sedale Threatt (20 points, 7-16 FGs) for the Sixers. Philly pulled out a narrow 107-103 win.
Barkley got the better of Cummings in Game 4. The Round Mound rolled up 37 points, 14 rebounds, and nine assists compared to T.C.’s 19 points and 13 boards. However, Pierce was crucial for the Bucks with 19 points on 6-7 FGs and 7-7 FTs as Milwaukee evened the series at 2-2 with a 109-104 win.
Game 5 was another classic. The Bucks won 113-108 as Cummings efforted 23 points, 11 boards, six dimes, and two swats to go along with Pressey’s triple-double of 23 points, 10 rebounds, and 16(!) assists. Barkley meanwhile was held in relative check with 29 points, eight boards, and five assists.
To take nothing away from the 76ers and Barkley’s mammoth 23 points and 21 rebounds (and seven turnovers), the Bucks appeared to tacitly accept a Game 6 loss at the Spectrum. Sitting Moncrief, the Bucks were throttled 126-108. Only Hodges labored over 30 minutes for Don Nelson’s squad.
Back in Wisconsin for the decisive Game 7, Cummings got the better of Barkley.
Sir Charles was certainly good, but Cummings was methodical in his execution of the 76ers. And Milwaukee certainly needed it. Threatt pumped in 28 points on 12-16 shooting for the Sixers. And in the first half, big man Clem Johnson terrorized the Bucks on the offensive glass grabbing seven such boards.
Still, Cummings’s 27 points on 12-19 shooting outdid Barkley’s 18 points and 12 rebounds as Milwaukee captured the game and series, 113-112.
The exhausted Bucks’ reward was being swept away by the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics in the ECF.
The finale of Sixers-Bucks was underwhelming in some regards.
The Bucks drooped from 57 wins in 1986 to 50 in 1987 and did not win the Central Division crown for the first time in ages. The main culprit in their slide was Moncrief’s injuries finally taking significant hold as he appeared in only 39 games. On the bright side, Pierce broke out with a 19.5-PPG season, point guard John Lucas was picked up off the waiver wire mid-season, and veteran center Jack Sikma was acquired via trade from Seattle. So although Milwaukee’s record slid, the team was still a contender, if the pieces were all healthy.
The Philly side of the ledger was much bleaker at the moment. Moses Malone was foolishly dealt to the Washington Bullets for Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson. The latter played well enough, but Ruland played a whopping five games before his damaged knee sent him out the league for four seasons. Nearly everyone on the roster from Barkley to Cheeks to Toney to Erving to Robinson were lost for decent to major chunks of the season. And Bobby Jones had retired, so no surprise that the 76ers won just 45 games, their worst season in a decade.
The good news is that with their respective slumps, the teams met in the first round of the playoffs, which meant another fiery affair. This time, though, under the pressure of a best-of-five series.
Game 1 was a 107-104 Milwaukee win. Oddly, Cummings was out of the starting lineup for this game—as he had been for the final four games of the regular season—but he still led the Bucks with 21 points. The performance was illusory, though. He hit just nine of his 22 shots and an abysmal three of his eight free throws. As for Barkley, he was contained to 21 points as well, but on 8-15 FGs, and swatted an absurd six shots. However, he committed six turnovers to Cummings’s zero.
Game 2 was a barnburner. Barkley churned out 26 and 15 with six turnovers again. Cummings, again, came off the bench with 21 points on subpar 9-21 shooting. The 76ers got a dynamite performance from Roy Hinson who exploded for 28 points on 10-14 FGs off the bench. But the Bucks had this game under control and blew it.
Holding a 10-point lead with just under seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Bucks were blitzed by the Sixers who used a pressing defense to comeback and force overtime. In OT Cummings was the goat (not G.O.A.T.) as he snagged a rebound with about a minute left, but his outlet pass was stolen by Barkley who drove in for a layup to give the Sixers the lead. Cummings had a chance to make up for the poor pass when he found himself open for a 14-foot jumper with four seconds left. The shot didn’t connect and Philly ultimately carried the day 125-122.
Cummings was distraught with his performance:
“I didn’t see [Barkley] until the last second and he stepped in and stole it. I feel bad. It was just a mental mistake.”
Wisconsin State Journal, April 27, 1987
For Game 3 in Philadelphia, Coach Nelson stopped the cuteness and re-inserted Cummings and Moncrief back into the Bucks’ starting lineup. And not a moment too soon. Cummings had 26 points on a more typical 10-17 shooting while Moncrief had 20 points including 10-11 FTs. Philly’s main man Barkley was monstrous with 39 points (13-19 FGs, 13-14 FTs). Down 103-91 in the fourth, the Bucks turned the tables on the Sixers and reeled off a 30-17 run to capture the game 121-120. Cummings scored 10 of his points in the fourth to cap his performance and Milwaukee’s comeback win.
In Game 4 T.C. was again hot with 29 points on 12-18 FGs. Barkley was again monstrous with 25 points on 8-10 FGs as the Sixers won 124-118 to setup a do-or-die Game 5 back in Milwaukee for the final showdown…
Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 1987
After three years of dazzling and splendid play by Cummings and Barkley, their final playoff match-up as rivals in the East was a dud. Seriously, look at the box score…
With both power forwards struggling the teams turned to their supporting casts. The Bucks turned up gold while the Sixers came up with pyrite. The green-and-white’s steady hero was Jack Sikma who finished the game with 18 points and 21 rebounds. Then there was also Craig Hodges who lobbed in all 14 of his points in a second-half hot streak that extended Milwaukee’s lead from 76-69 to 90-74.
In his final NBA game, Julius Erving led the Sixers with 24 points, but he shot 10-24 from the field. Cheeks had 12 points on 4-14 shooting. The Sixers overall were 36-97 from the field and 15-23 from the line. No surprise the Bucks prevailed 102-89.
Advancing to the ECSF, the Bucks again lost to Boston. However, this loss was in seven games and represented their last real chance at the NBA title in the 1980s. In 1988, the Bucks had just 42 wins easily their worst season in a decade. In 1989 they rose to 49 wins and another second round appearance, but they were swept by the Detroit Pistons. The sweep was expedited by Cummings missing all but one game of the series with an ankle injury.
With Moncrief sadly running on empty and Sikma entering the twilight of his career, the Bucks decided that the way to extend any hope of success was to cash in their biggest trade chip: Terry Cummings.
So onward we go to T.C.’s sojourn in San Antonio.