It has been 31 years in the making, but the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics will finally square off in the postseason again. The two teams have played one another five times in the playoffs since Milwaukee joined the NBA in the 1968/69 season. The first meeting came when the teams were on a season long collision course that culminated in a thrilling, seven game series in the NBA Finals.
Milwaukee’s move to the Eastern Conference in 1980 allowed the two teams to meet four times in the Eastern Conference playoffs throughout the decade, but have yet to share a postseason court since the 1987 series. Before the two teams renew their postseason vows, let’s take a trip down memory lane and see how they have fared against one another when it matters most.
1974 NBA Finals
Back in the day, the Bucks were a member of the Western Conference and during the 1973/74 season, they posted the top record in the West, and all of the NBA, going 59-23. Milwaukee dispatched the Los Angeles Lakers in five game and then swept the Chicago Bulls to make their second, and most recent, Finals appearance.
The Bucks were facing a Celtics franchise that was four years removed from winning their eleventh title in a dominate 13 year span. Milwaukee, of course, won the 1971 Finals and had a bulk of those championship contributors in their lineup for the ‘74 Finals.
Here is how the first, and highest stakes, meeting went down:
Game 1 - Boston 98 @ Milwaukee 83 (BOS leads 1-0)
Game 2 - Boston 96 @ Milwaukee 105 (OT) (Tied 1-1)
Game 3 - Milwaukee 83 @ Boston 95 (BOS leads 2-1)
Game 4 - Milwaukee 97 @ Boston 89 (Tied 2-2)
Game 5 - Boston 96 @ Milwaukee 87 (BOS leads 3-2)
Game 6 - Milwaukee 102 @ Boston 101 (2OT) (Tied 3-3)
This was an absolute classic game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson played all 58 minutes in the double overtime contest, with Robertson finding Abdul-Jabbar on an in-bounds pass that led to a game winning sky hook. Fast forward to the 6:35 mark for the winning shot sequence.
Game 7 - Boston 102 @ Milwaukee 87 (BOS wins 4-3)
Despite having the league’s best record and home court advantage, the Bucks went just 1-3 at The MECCA and were never able to get out in front of the Celtics. Abdul-Jabbar led the Bucks in points (32.6), rebounds (12.1), and blocks (2.1) with Robertson leading the team in assists (8.6). John Havlicek was named Finals MVP, finishing with a line of 27.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4.7 assists in the seven game series.
1983 Eastern Conference Semifinals
The 1982/83 Bucks completed their third straight 50-win season under head coach, Don Nelson (who was on that ‘74 Celtics team), and were led by a litany of players whose numbers hang in the rafters today. Standing in their path was a 56-win Celtics team that featured a blossoming young talent in Larry Bird.
Since Milwaukee won their division, they received a first round bye and the second seed in the East. Boston finished behind the Philadelphia 76ers in their division and were given the third seed. However, since Boston had a better regular season record than Milwaukee, Boston had home court advantage this time around and here is how the series shook out:
Game 1 - Milwaukee 116 @ Boston 95 (MIL leads 1-0)
Game 2 - Milwaukee 95 @ Boston 91 (MIL leads 2-0)
Game 3 - Boston 99 @ Milwaukee 107 (MIL leads 3-0)
Game 4 - Boston 93 @ Milwaukee 103 (MIL wins 4-0)
Conceding home court advantage to the lesser seed did not deter the Bucks as they swept the Celtics with relative ease. Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson both averaged 20+ points in the series (23.3 and 22.8 points respectively) and the duo played over 40 minutes a game in the sweep. Milwaukee would go on to lose to the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Sixers, led by Julius Erving and Moses Malone, would win the NBA Championship.
1984 Eastern Conference Finals
Milwaukee notched their fourth consecutive 50-win season, along with another division title, and just like the 1983 postseason, the Bucks would lay claim to the second seed in the East. No longer earning a first round bye for winning the division, the Bucks faced the Atlanta Hawks and squeaked by them in five games, winning 3-2. In the conference semifinals, Milwaukee easily disposed of the New Jersey Nets in six games to set up a rematch with the Celtics.
Over in Boston, the Celtics won 62 games and had a firm grasp on the number one seed, and home court advantage, in the Eastern Conference. Larry Bird, now fully blossomed, took home league MVP honors and was looking for revenge after getting swept last season.
Here is how round three was carded:
Game 1 - Milwaukee 96 @ Boston 119 (BOS leads 1-0)
Game 2 - Milwaukee 110 @ Boston 125 (BOS leads 2-0)
Game 3 - Boston 109 @ Milwaukee 100 (BOS leads 3-0)
Game 4 - Boston 113 @ Milwaukee 122 (BOS leads 3-1)
Game 5 - Milwaukee 108 @ Boston 115 (BOS wins 4-1)
Boston would convert on half of their shots throughout the series and when a team cannot seem to miss, it’s hard to hang with them. Marques Johnson led Milwaukee with 20.2 points per game. The Bucks would end up being a footnote for Boston’s championship winning season. Bird earned Finals MVP honors as he led the Celtics over the Los Angeles Lakers in seven games.
1986 Eastern Conference Finals
After taking a year off from each other, the two teams reunited, once again, with a trip to the Finals on the line. The Bucks finished the 1985/86 season with 57 wins and a division title, but that was 10 wins fewer than the top seeded Celtics, who finished the campaign with 67 victories.
Claiming their familiar second seed, Milwaukee swept the New Jersey Nets in three games in the first round, and then won a hard fought, seven game series against the Philadelphia 76ers. That seven game series took a lot out of the Bucks as they struggled to get any momentum going against the juggernaut Celtics:
Game 1 - Milwaukee 96 @ Boston 128 (BOS leads 1-0)
Game 2 - Milwaukee 111 @ Boston 122 (BOS leads 2-0)
Game 3 - Boston 111 @ Milwaukee 107 (BOS leads 3-0)
Game 4 - Boston 111 @ Milwaukee 98 (BOS wins 4-0)
A completely gassed and over-matched Milwaukee squad were led by Terry Cummings and his 18.3 points and 10.8 rebounds a game effort. Boston made 51 percent of their field goals whereas Milwaukee could only sink 44 percent of their shots. The Celtics would go onto beat the Houston Rockets in six games to capture another NBA title. Larry Bird would win another Finals MVP honor.
1987 Eastern Conference Semifinals
Milwaukee would lay claim to the fourth seed in the East and another 50-win season, their seventh straight season with at least 50 wins. The Bucks eliminated the Philadelphia 76ers in five games in the opening round to set-up a rematch and a chance to avenge last season’s embarrassing sweep.
The defending champion Celtics were in no mood to rest on their laurels as they nabbed the Eastern Conference’s top seed, again, and had their sights set on another championship. With Milwaukee looking to prove themselves and with Boston having one eye looking ahead, the most recent postseason clash was a thrilling dogfight:
Game 1 - Milwaukee 98 @ Boston 111 (BOS leads 1-0)
Game 2 - Milwaukee 124 @ Boston 126 (BOS leads 2-0)
Game 3 - Boston 121 @ Milwaukee 126 (OT) (BOS leads 2-1)
Game 4 - Boston 138 @ Milwaukee 137 (2OT) (BOS leads 3-1)
Game 5 - Milwaukee 129 @ Boston 124 (BOS leads 3-2)
Game 6 - Boston 111 @ Milwaukee 121 (Tied 3-3)
Game 7 - Milwaukee 113 @ Boston 119 (BOS wins 4-3)
The Bucks nearly pulled off an incredible 3-1 series comeback against the Celtics but came up tantalizingly short. The Celtics were unable to defend their championship as they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in six games.
In five total postseason meetings, the Boston Celtics hold a 4-1 advantage over the Milwaukee Bucks. The total record for Milwaukee against Boston in the playoffs is 11-16, which is good enough for a 40.7 winning percentage. Three of the five series were decided in five or less games, but the two that went seven games were absolute epics.
So, which version of this series will we get this year? The type of series that resembles the ones from the early-mid ‘80s, or are we destined to get an absolute treat of a series, like the one in 1974, or the latest edition from 1987?