Milwaukee Bucks: Getting to know the 1971-72 team

NEW YORK, NY - CIRCA 1970's: (Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - CIRCA 1970's: (Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images) /

Following their championship winning season, the Milwaukee Bucks looked to defend their title in the 1971-72 season, but ultimately came up short doing so.

There was only one thing on the minds of the Milwaukee Bucks heading into the 1971-72 season.

Having dismantled the league the previous year by notching 66 wins and taking care of business against the San Francisco Warriors as well as the Los Angeles Lakers in the postseason before winning the NBA Finals in a clean sweep over the Baltimore Bullets, the Bucks had etched their way into NBA history with a thoroughly dominant campaign that still stands the test of time.

The Bucks’ meteoric rise from mere expansion startup to NBA champions in a matter of three seasons wasn’t lost on anyone following the league.

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Neither was the fact that the team’s championship nucleus consisting of the otherworldly Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the aging, yet still potent Oscar Robertson and the underrated Bob Dandridge naturally brought up talk over whether Milwaukee was on their way to beginning a dynastic-like run to open up the 1970’s.

Of course, the Bucks establishing themselves as an NBA powerhouse subsequently put a target on their back, so to speak, as opposing teams all had a mission to dethrone them following their championship winning year.

As all 16 other teams in the league tried to design ways to limit the Bucks in some shape or form, Abdul-Jabbar obviously became the main focus of attention as Sports Illustrated’s Peter Carry explored back in 1971 with the help of NBA coaches at the time:

"“To stop Milwaukee, Jabbar must be contained. Bucks coach Larry Costello has designed his offense around winging the ball to Kareem in the low post and then letting the defense scramble as he wheels toward the basket or passes to an open teammate. How to stop it?“I don’t know whether it’s worth going into,” says Cousy of the Cincinnati approach to playing Jabbar. “You kind of play it by ear. We alternate double teaming on him. One quarter we’ll send a double team in from behind. Another quarter from the front. I guess you could say we alternate strategy and get down on our knees and pray. There’s just not a lot you can do.”“To play the Bucks effectively you have to make adjustments,” agrees Celtics Coach Tom Heinsohn, whose team is the only one to beat the Bucks this year. “Jabbar’s secret is that he is 7’4″ and very smart. When you try to double-team him, he picks it up in a jiffy.”"

Any adjustments and wrinkles opposing teams workshopped when preparing to face the Bucks heading into the year did little to slow down Abdul-Jabbar and the reigning champs as they started their title defense for the 71-72 campaign.

The Bucks opened up play having only been dealt one loss over the first month of the season, which came at the hands of the Boston Celtics. Not only that, but Abdul-Jabbar managed to improve on his reigning Most Valuable Player form to reinforce his stranglehold over the league once again.

As the season wore on, however, the emergence of a rival opposing power started to take some of the spotlight away from the Bucks. They came in the form of a Los Angeles Lakers team that was spearheaded by veteran superstars such as Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich.

That Lakers squad may be best known for crafting the longest winning streak in NBA history by winning 33 consecutive tilts from the beginning of November to the start of January. But the Bucks became forever linked to that Lakers team after they busted up their historic run by toppling them 120-104 during the Lakers’ visit to Milwaukee back on January 9, 1972.

Related Story. Milwaukee Bucks: Snapping the Los Angeles Lakers’ all-time win streak. light

Although the Bucks’ victory over the Lakers stood as their signature W in the year, their grip on the rest of the league showed some minor signs of slippage down the stretch.

As BTBP alum Ti Windisch noted in his retrospective on the 1971-72 season during last year’s Bucks History Month, the Bucks never lost more than two straight games throughout the season. Yet their 8-4 record during the month of March opened the door for the Lakers to take full ownership of the top seed in the Western Conference and the best record in all of the league.

Regardless, tallying a 63-19 record was nothing to balk at whatsoever and for the second straight season, Abdul-Jabbar took home MVP honors after posting a league-leading 34.8 points on 57.4 percent shooting from the field, 16.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists in his 81 appearances on the year.

With their title defense shifting over into the playoffs, the Bucks knew their path to a potential second straight championship wasn’t going to mirror their journey from the last year.

First up on the docket were the Golden State Warriors, who were led by Nate Thurmond and came in at 51-31. Despite the Warriors taking Game 1 in the MECCA arena, the Bucks quickly regrouped to complete the gentleman’s sweep with a point differential of 68 points in Games 2 through 5.

But the true test came in the Western Conference Finals when the Bucks matched up against the Lakers in what was a highly anticipated affair. Milwaukee drew first blood by locking the Lakers down on their way to a 93-72 victory in Game 1, a contest in which the Lakers only converted a whopping 27.2 percent of their shots from the field.

The lowly performance from the Lakers in the series opener led to the team’s owner, Jack Kent Cooke, stunningly blaming the team’s offensive woes on the lighting system that was set up by ABC inside The Forum to broadcast the games across the nation. The controversy led to then-Lakers head coach Bill Sharman touching on the team’s play as Carry relayed during the series:

"“The change in the lights did take away some of our home-court advantage in the first game; it changed the environment somewhat,” whispered Laker Coach Bill Sharman, who is suffering through his second month with strained vocal cords and sounds these days like Walter Brennan with a strep infection. “If we had lost by one point, I might have said the lights could have had something to do with it. But when you lose by 19, it’s not the lights. It was simply that our good shooters were all way off. Gail made two of 14, Jimmy hit three of 20 and Jerry four of 19.”"

After the smoke eventually blew over, the Lakers countered right back to seal a nail-biting 135-134 victory over the Bucks in Game 2. From there, the series shifted over to the Bucks’ home court, but the advantage wouldn’t do them any good for Game 3 as the Lakers once again prevailed over the Bucks to a 108-105 win to take a 2-1 series lead.

The Bucks answered back with an emphatic 114-88 victory in Game 4 that left some of the Lakers’ cornerstones frustrated. From that same piece from Carry:

"“I’m tired of shooting, I’m tired of doing everything,” West had complained earlier. “I’m supposed to score, and then I’m supposed to defend against the other team’s high-scoring guard. I played too many minutes again this year. When there are 17,000 people in The Forum, for example, I have to play 40 minutes whether the game is close or not.”"

Bucks coach Larry Costello, perhaps feeling himself just a little bit, said “they (the Lakers) haven’t really proved they can’t beat us yet” following the Bucks’ Game 4 win. That sentiment, though, turned out to be famous last words as the Lakers put on the finishing touches in Games 5 and 6 to advance to the NBA Finals and face the New York Knicks.

The reasons behind the Bucks’ stunning playoff dispatching by Los Angeles was quite clear in the wake of their season coming to a close.

Despite the efforts of Abdul-Jabbar, who put up 33.7 points over the six-game set, the supporting cast around him was not as influential as they were in past series. Of the players that stood out in that regard, it was the 33-year-old Robertson who was significantly neutralized throughout the series, seeing that he only recorded 9.0 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game and 5.7 assists per game.

Next. Milwaukee Bucks: Get to know the 1970-71 team. dark

It was certainly a major stumble, but considering their pedigree and the fact that Abdul-Jabbar was still growing into the peak of his powers, there was little to suggest at the time that the Bucks couldn’t travel back to the summit and reach NBA glory. However, those future projections wouldn’t quite meet reality as Bucks fans later found out.