‘Howler’ Game 1 Sets Tone for Showdown vs. Superstar Bucks

April 8, 1980: Dennis Johnson stuns Bucks to kickstart Sonics’ most intense playoff series

By Art Thiel


After the SuperSonics winning the NBA championship in 1979 and before the arrival of the spectacular 1990s era of coach George Karl with all-NBA players Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, there was a playoff series little remembered but big on intensity.

The 1980 NBA Western Conference semifinals between the Sonics and Milwaukee Bucks lasted seven excruciating games decided by consecutive margins of 1, 2, 4, 5, 11, 1 and 4 points, including two overtimes. How did that 11-point margin even get in the mix?

The intensity of every game was can’t-believe-this-can-keep-up level. The Bucks were anchored by superstars Marques Johnson and Bob Lanier.  Game 1 was a good old-fashioned howler at the Seattle Coliseum. The defending NBA champion Sonics, who finished the regular season 56-26, were down 113-111 in overtime with less than 10 seconds left. The Sonics’ Dennis Johnson took the in-bounds pass under the Sonics basket. He had no plans to surrender the ball.

As all five Bucks took a shot at defending or distracting him, Johnson kept his dribble and finally gathered for a jump shot from 28 feet with the clock at :02. In the first season for the three-point shot in the NBA, Johnson made what would be his only successful trey of the series to stun the Bucks, 114-113, just as the horn sounded and a breathless sellout crowd erupted.

The Dennis Johnson shot made amends for the worst big game of his career two years earlier. In Game 7 of the 1978 NBA Finals against the Washington Bullets on the same floor, Johnson went 0-for-14 from the field.

“I just messed up,” he said after the loss. “I couldn’t hit anything.”

Johnson and his Sonics team avenged in 1979 winning the NBA Finals 4 games-to-1 against the same Washington team. Seattle won both of its home games at the Coliseum, then clincher occurred on the road out East.

Four months later, Johnson signed one of the then biggest contracts in the NBA, a five-year deal totaling $400,000.

“I plan to be a Sonic for the rest of my career,” he said.

But three months after beating the Bucks, Johnson was traded by Sonics boss Lenny Wilkens to Phoenix for Paul Westphal, one of the most controversial trades in Seattle sports history.

Johnson went on to win two NBA titles with the Boston Celtics and in 2010 was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.