A Look at the Milwaukee Bucks’ Playoff History

It’s time for another Bucks championship win.

The Milwaukee Bucks have reached the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974 and are in search of only the second title in the franchise’s 53-year existence as they take on the Phoenix Suns in the best-of-seven series that began Tuesday night in Arizona.

The Bucks captured their lone NBA championship in 1971, sweeping the Baltimore Bullets (now the Washington Wizards) in four games.

Milwaukee’s quest for an elusive NBA championship got off to a tough start as the Bucks fell to the Suns 118-105 in the Finals opener. The Bucks will look to bounce back in Game 2 on Thursday night in Phoenix. Milwaukee will host Game 3 on Sunday night and Game 4 on Wednesday night at Fiserv Forum.

The NBA awarded Milwaukee a franchise in January 1968. The Bucks began play in the 1968-69 season, during which the team struggled to a 27-55 record. The Bucks quickly found success in their second season, finishing with a 56-26 record behind the scoring prowess of rookie Lew Alcindor, who would later take the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar following a conversion to Islam.

 

 

The Bucks captured the title the following season, reaching the pinnacle in just their third season of existence after rolling through the regular season with a 66-16 record, which remains the best mark in franchise history. Milwaukee won a championship quicker than any other expansion team in professional sports history as they defeated the San Francisco Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers before whitewashing the Bullets in capturing the 1971 title. 

Led by Hall of Famers Alcindor and Oscar Robertson, the Bucks championship roster also consisted of other notable players, including Jon McGlocklin, Bob Dandridge, Greg Smith, Lucius Allen and Bob Boozer. Robertson poured in 30 points in the title-clinching game. McGlocklin would go on to become a long-time television color analyst for the Bucks, working for many years alongside the recently retired Jim Paschke.

The late Larry Costello, who has the second-most wins in Bucks history behind only Don Nelson, coached the squad, which played its home games at the Milwaukee Arena, later known as the MECCA (Milwaukee Exposition, Convention Center and Arena), that had a seating capacity of just under 11,000.

The building, which originally opened in 1950, remains standing and is currently known as the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena. It sits two blocks south of the state-of-the-art Fiserv Forum, the Bucks’ current home.

With the core of its 1971 championship team intact and Costello still at the helm, the Bucks made a run at another title three years later, reaching the Finals before falling to the Boston Celtics four games to three. 

After making two Finals appearances in their first six seasons of existence, the Bucks had been absent from the championship round for 47 years until securing a berth in the NBA Finals on Saturday night with a win over the Atlanta Hawks to clinch the Eastern Conference title.

After finishing runner-up to the Celtics in the 1974 Finals, the Bucks fortunes took a turn and the team followed up with three consecutive losing seasons.

In June 1975, just one year removed from their Finals appearance, the Bucks traded Abdul-Jabbar to the Los Angeles Lakers for Elmore Smith, Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters and David Meyers.

Although titles have been elusive, the Bucks have had several stellar campaigns and made 12 consecutive playoff appearances stretching from the 1979-80 season through 1990-91. The 1980-81 team, led by current Bucks’ television broadcaster Marques Johnson, went 60-22 but lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Milwaukee appeared in the Eastern Conference Finals three times during that stretch.

The team also moved into a new home, the Bradley Center, in 1988, where the team played through the 2017-18 season.

After the extended run of success, the Bucks then missed the playoffs entirely for seven consecutive seasons before returning to post-season play in 1998-99 season. The 2000-01 team, led by the “Big Three” of Ray Allen, Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson and Sam Cassell, made it to the Eastern Conference Finals before bowing to the Philadelphia 76ers in a hard-fought seven-game series.

Milwaukee fell into mediocrity starting the next year, finishing the regular season at 41-41. A frustrating and extended period of futility followed, as the Bucks would make the playoffs only eight times over 17 seasons while never advancing past the first round.

The team’s fortunes would change when it began to reap the rewards that came from drafting a raw, skinny 18-year-old unknown from Greece named Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick of the first round of the 2013 NBA draft.

The Bucks also got new owners in 2014 when a group led by New York-based investing giants Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry purchased the Bucks from long-time owner and former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl for $550 million.

Success with Antetokounmpo didn’t come immediately. The Bucks went 15-67 during Antetokoumpo’s rookie season, the worst record in franchise history. A 41-41season followed before a dip to 33-49 in the 2015-16 season, the last time the Bucks compiled a losing record.

The team began to jell as Antetokounmpo matured, added muscle, honed his skills and started to transform into the dominant player that has gone on to capture two Most Valuable Player awards. He’s played his entire career alongside All-Star Khris Middleton, and the pair led the Bucks to a 60-22 record in 2018-19 season and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the Toronto Raptors, who would go on to win the NBA title.

That same season, the Bucks moved into Fiserv Forum, a sparkling $524 million arena that served as a necessary factor in keeping the franchise in Milwaukee. The subsequent creation of the Deer District on the property surrounding Fiserv Forum has turned into a showcase for national television broadcasts of the NBA playoffs as more than 20,000 fans have packed the area for games, both when the Bucks are at home and on the road.

The Bucks had the league’s best record last season when the NBA suspended play in March due the coronavirus pandemic. When the season resumed with teams sequestered in a “bubble” at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, Milwaukee didn’t appear as sharp. The Miami Heat eliminated the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, a disappointing end to a season that seemed to hold so much promise.

Now, after a dramatic season full of twists and turns, the Bucks are four wins away from bringing championship-starved Milwaukee its first NBA title in a half century

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.