The Milwaukee Bucks have only one NBA Championship to their name, but if they could have won just one more game in the 1974 Finals that wouldn’t be the case.
History is written by the victors, but that doesn’t go so far as to explain why so often the vanquished end up completely forgotten.
No explanation is needed for why the championship winning Bucks of 1971 are lauded over, but the team who only three years later were just one game away from immortality deserve their own share of the spotlight too.
Perhaps it’s too painful to dwell upon regularly, but the Bucks seven-game loss to the Boston Celtics in ’74 was the only other occasion when the franchise managed to emerge from their conference/division into the league’s grand finale.
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When they got there, Milwaukee fought and scrapped with everything they had in one of the all-time classic series.
The Bucks had the same core faces that drove the team to victory in 1971, but the passing of time hadn’t necessarily done them any favors.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still one of the league’s most dominant players and only in the early stages of his career, but he wasn’t as productive as the incredible heights he had reached in 1971 and ’72.
At 35 years old, Oscar Robertson was long past his imperious best and game seven of the ’74 Finals would ultimately prove to be his final game as an NBA player.
Jon McGlocklin was another key Buck on the downward slope in his career (he would retire only two seasons later), while Lucius Allen was a key piece of the Bucks’ bench for a number of years who was cruelly ruled out of the Finals due to an injury suffered in the regular season.
Still, in spite of those factors working against them, the Bucks were a major force in the league and they remained confident that they had what it took. As backup Bucks guard Dick Garrett described it:
"“If you got a guy like Oscar Robertson and Kareem, no matter who you put out there you were going to have a good chance of winning. That was kind of the mindset on this team. I don’t think any of us thought we’d lose.”"
That confidence was likely key to the resilient effort demonstrated by Milwaukee throughout the series too.
Having dropped the series opener in spite of home court advantage, the Bucks quickly found themselves with their backs up against the wall. They bounced back with a vital win in Game 2, in the process setting the pattern that would define the entire series.
Although they ended up only 48 minutes away from getting their hands on the Larry O’Brien trophy again, Milwaukee never led in the series. Home court proved to be of little importance as both teams only managed to win one of their games in front of their own fans, in a hard-fought series that was dominated by the outstanding defensive play of both squads.
Legendary Celtic John Havlicek, who starred for his team throughout the Finals, described the play of both teams as “the best defense I’ve ever seen by two teams at the same time”. At the time, Peter Carry of Sports Illustrated noted:
"The defense, as Milwaukee and Boston played it throughout the series, was indeed the very best. While the Celtics’ press received more notice, it was actually the Bucks that were more unyielding. Milwaukee held Boston, which scored 109 points per game in the regular season, under 100 five times, and in one 100-point game the Celtics needed two overtimes to surpass that figure."
That double overtime game in which the Celtics did surpass the 100-point mark went on to be iconic too.
Forced with entering the Boston Garden knowing that a win was a must to keep the series alive, the Bucks were always going to have their work cut out for them in Game 6 of the series.
After a dominant start that saw the Bucks open up an eight-point lead, the Celtics gradually chipped away at Milwaukee’s advantage until when the clock wound down in the fourth quarter the game was tied.
As the extra periods played out, the game remained a tight and tense affair. At the end of double overtime, with only seven seconds remaining, the Garden was readying itself for celebration until somehow a skyhook came to Milwaukee’s rescue.
"With the champagne about to be uncorked, Milwaukee called a timeout and set up one last play–not for Abdul-Jabbar, but for swingman Jon McGlocklin. However, the play broke down when McGlocklin couldn’t shake himself free as Abdul-Jabbar stood to the right of the lane with the ball. Abdul-Jabbar looked for someone else to pass to but could find no one, so he dribbled to the baseline, turned and put up his graceful sky-hook. It nestled through the net for a 102-101 Bucks win that tied the series at 3-3."
In spite of the heroic finish in Game 6, as Jon McGlocklin describes it, the mood in the Bucks camp was very much one of hope rather than expectation heading into the decider.
"We didn’t have a lot of confidence – you had confidence – but you knew you were limping in there on hope, to some degree. But yet, we still had Kareem. Mickey Davis had done a great job. Bobby (Dandridge). Oscar was pulling his freight as best he could and we took ‘em to seven and we were at home. We didn’t see them dominating us."
But dominate the Celtics did. With Celtics coach Tommy Heinsohn having decided to double Kareem for the first time in the series, Milwaukee’s game plan went out the window. Their star man couldn’t assert his dominance in the way he had done before, and the strain of the extra man guarding him clearly showed on both the Bucks and their talismanic center.
"The last game, I know I was tired,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I played two overtime games. It wasn’t there for us to win.”"
The Celtics opened up a double digit lead in the first half and never looked likely to relinquish. Hoping for bigger contributions from role players in light of the attention afforded to Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee was left disappointed.
The game finished 102-87 in Boston’s favor.
As Bobby Dandridge described it:
"“At the end of a series like that, you’re just glad it’s over. You know, you’re like, OK, it’s over, they won and you’re exhausted and you know you laid everything out there so let’s just go ahead and move on to the summer. It takes you, once you regain your juices and you’ve rested, then you reflect back on the pain of losing the game. For me, Boston won. They were the better team for that seven game series. Then it’s over.”"
In many ways the reality was that it really was over for this great Bucks team. Kareem would request a trade prior to the start of the following season, although he’d have to wait for it to actually materialize. The Big O retired, and the Bucks posted losing records for their next three seasons.
If they could have had that one game back again, who knows if things would have been different. Perhaps the Bucks would have went for one more title, and perhaps the resurgence of the Celtics would have postponed for a few more years.
As it was, the Bucks lost. The disappointment will always live on, but the feat of reaching that point should never be overlooked.