Milwaukee’s Playoff Pioneers
Lew Alcindor, flashing signs of what was to come a year later, led Milwaukee with an average of 34.4 points per game, going for 35 or more in all but one of the five games.
Anyone who has visited the Bradley Center and checked out the rafters has no doubt seen the Milwaukee Bucks’ 1971 National Basketball Association championship banner.
The franchise has always made sure that it stands out.
The Bucks, whose title conquest came in just their third season of existence, came farther faster than any expansion team in the history of professional sports.
And their 1971 playoff run was a dominant 12-2, capped by a four-game sweep of the Baltimore Bullets in the finals.
The Bucks’ title team – featuring NBA Hall-of-Famers Lew Alcindor (who later became known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Oscar Robertson and a skilled supporting cast that included Bob Dandridge, Jon McGlocklin, Greg Smith and reserves Lucius Allen, Bob Boozer, McCoy McLemore and Dick Cunningham – was so overpowering that made some forget the team’s first playoff venture, which was a feat in itself.
The Bucks’ 27 wins in their debut season of 1968-69 are the second-most ever by an NBA expansion team. With the arrival of Alcindor as the top pick in the 1969 NBA Draft and his emergence as NBA Rookie of the Year, Milwaukee’s victory total skyrocketed to 56. The 28-game upgrade stood as a league record for 10 years.
The Bucks’ 56-26 regular-season record earned them second place in the Eastern Division – and the entire league -- as they finished just four games off the pace of the New York Knicks. They earned their first playoff berth and made it clear in a hurry that they weren’t just taking there for the scenic tour.
The team played the first home playoff games in its history in Madison against a Philadelphia 76ers team featuring two future Hall-of-Famers: left-handed forward Billy Cunningham, who had finished fourth in the league in scoring at 26.1 points per game; and sharp-shooting guard Hal Greer, who had averaged 22 points per outing.
Their supporting cast included Archie Clark and future Buck Wali Jones at guard, Jim Washington at forward and Darrall Imhoff and Lucious Jackson in the post.
The Sixers’ coach was another Hall-of-Famer, Dr. Jack Ramsay, who has enjoyed a second successful career as a television commentator for NBA games.
Milwaukee, though, boasted the NBA’s second-leading scorer in Alcindor, who had averaged 28.8 points per game and also grabbed 14.5 rebounds per outing to rank third in the league in that category.
And the Bucks had a strong supporting cast even before the arrival of Robertson the following season. Guard Flynn Robinson, dubbed “The Electric Eye” by the team’s legendary announcer, Eddie Doucette, had averaged 21.8 ppg during the regular season to join Alcindor as an All-Star selection while McGlocklin, his backcourt partner, had averaged 17.6.
The fourth double-digit scorer in Milwaukee’s lineup was rookie forward Bob “The Greyhound” Dandridge, who had chipped in with 13.2 ppg. Smith contributed 9.8 ppg and despite standing a listed 6 feet, 5 inches was the team’s second-leading rebounder at 8.5 rpg.
The Bucks had plenty of veteran experience coming off their bench, too, with the likes of forwards Len Chappell and “Dynamite” Don Smith (who later changed his name to Zaid Abdul-Aziz) and guards Fred “The Walrus” Crawford and Guy “The Magician” Rodgers.
The team gave its Madison supporters and its long-traveling Milwaukee fans something to cheer about as soon as the playoffs began, scoring a 125-118 victory over the 76ers as Alcindor poured in a game-high 36 points.
Philadelphia rode a 37-point performance by Cunningham, “The Kangaroo Kid,” to a 112-105 upset victory in game two at Madison, but the Bucks answered emphatically.
They roared past Philly at the Spectrum 156-120 March 30 led by Alcindor’s 33 points, setting a team record for most field goals (67) made in a playoff game. Then they overcame a 50-point barrage by Cunningham to sweep the Sixers on their home floor 118-111.
The Bucks returned home and clinched the best-of-five series with a 115-106 triumph at the Milwaukee Arena as Alcindor nearly matched Cunningham’s nifty fifty with a 46-point outburst, which still stands as a franchise playoff record for most points in a game.
Milwaukee’s first playoff series history advanced the Bucks to the Eastern Division Finals, which they lost to the Knicks 4-1.
New York took game one 110-102, then pulled out game two 112-111. Milwaukee showed moxie by taking game three 101-96 in its first home appearance of the series before the Knicks took their game to another level, winning game four 117-105 before dominating game five 132-96 at Madison Square Garden.
The division finals featured a duel between two future Hall-of-Fame centers.
Willis Reed led New York in scoring in each of the five games, averaging 27.8 points per game including outings of 36 in game two and 32 in game five.
Alcindor, flashing signs of what was to come a year later, led Milwaukee with an average of 34.4 points per game, going for 35 or more in all but one of the five games.
New York went on to beat the Los Angeles Lakers, four games to three, in the 1970 NBA Finals. Milwaukee, though, was on the NBA playoff map and would become its epicenter just one year later.