A brief history of Bulls vs. Bucks playoff rivalry

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By Sam Smith | 4.17.2015 | 8:45 a.m. CT

Chicagoans can be a bit haughty, sneering down on their neighbors from the north, and the folks in Milwaukee don’t always appreciate the beer-and-brat appellation. Milwaukeeans can be a bit oversensitive, as a result, perhaps mistaking sentiment for superiority. Though it’s not like either has an ocean view.

So sometimes their collective blue collars get a little tight and the red in their faces extends to an anger on the basketball court. Though Saturday will just be the fourth time the Bulls and Bucks have met in the NBA playoffs, their series have been some of the most intense and physical in NBA annals. And the one in 1990, which closed with a game featuring 68 personal fouls, six technicals and 96 free throws, was the game many say truly opened the eyes of NBA officials.

It was from that game in something of a culmination of the late 1980’s Bad Boys era that finally awoke the NBA to the increasing violence in the NBA. Though the Pistons had for several years engaged in physical battles with Boston and used aggressive tactics to thwart the Bulls, it was that game with multiple near brawls that finally awoke the NBA rules makers.

From that game came the start of the increasing rules against hard fouls and aggressive play that’s led to some saying it’s gone too far today with flagrant fouls for arbitrary physical contact. Its roots trace to that Bulls/Bucks series and the Bulls, as the view around the NBA became you have to take down Michael Jordan to take out the Bulls.

The Bulls would defeat the Bucks 3-1 in that series. Jordan would average 36.8 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, 48 points in the Bulls Game 3 loss in Milwaukee. The Bulls closed out the series 110-86 with a rout in Milwaukee after Jordan had been body slammed in Game 2 by Greg Anderson and John Paxson elbowed in the face in Game 3. Anderson would be ejected in Game 4 for elbowing Ed Nealy in what almost devolved into a brawl. Will Perdue after not playing the first three games came in and knocked out Alvin Robertson, also scoring 15 points in 16 minutes with Phil Jackson later crediting Perdue for “igniting everything.” Phil called the game “trench warfare,” which the NBA didn’t much appreciate.

The Bulls were regarded then as a “soft,” finesse team, good defenders but with Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant who you could intimidate with physical play. The Bucks didn’t have enough talent, and the Pistons would do it one more time in the conference finals. But from that series came the tighter officiating and stricter rules which helped the Bulls overcome the Pistons in 1991 and win their first championship. The games became more offensive, artistic affairs where the Bulls’ athleticism and scoring could prevail over the thug tactics which held them back.

When the Bulls and Bucks met for the first time in the playoffs, those tactics weren’t quite under scrutiny. And they tended to favor the Bulls.

It was the Bucks back then having been champions in 1971 with the greatest finesse talent in the game, perhaps ever, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Bucks also had Oscar Robertson playing his final NBA season when the Bulls and Bucks met up in the 1974 Western Conference semifinals.

The Bulls were the physical team of that era everyone feared and even resented with the backcourt play of Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan. They’d routinely challenge everyone in the NBA to fights, including Wilt Chamberlain. Legends like Jerry West and Walt Frazier used to complain to the NBA about their tactics.

The Bulls had scoring with Bob Love and Chet Walker. But they would have the misfortune of being at their best in the same conference with Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain, maybe the two best centers in NBA history.

The Bulls then in the West finished second to the Bucks in their Midwest Division with 54 wins, third most in the league and five behind Milwaukee. It was a geographic as well as talent rivalry with the Bulls striving, roles reversed with the blue collar Chicago team versus the royalty from Milwaukee with the greats of Kareem and Oscar.

“The rivalry was at a high point,” said then Bucks general manager Wayne Embry, now an advisor for the Toronto Raptors. Embry called it the league’s most intense rivalry.

“During the season, those games were like wars,” Embry recalled. “We had Kareem, (Bobby) Dandridge, Oscar; they had Love, Sloan, Chet. Every night we weren’t playing, Larry (Costello, Bucks coach) would go down to Chicago to watch the Bulls. (Dick) Motta always said he knew his plays better than his players did. That was Larry; he’d outwork everyone. He hated to lose to Dick.”

That was an era when brawling was accepted, which favored the Bulls. The Bulls thought the previous year was theirs when they lost to the Lakers in the conference semifinals in the last seconds of Game 7. It was always wild with those Bulls and in the 1973-74 season, Motta was suspended for attacking an official after the game. And as things were then, he was replaced by trainer Bob Biel to coach the three games. Though it was such a high IQ Bulls team they virtually coached themselves as their dislike for opponents was generally only exceeded by their dislike for their coach.

Late that season, Kareem was destroying the Bulls again when Bulls center Dennis Awtrey punched out Abdul-Jabbar after a rough play under the basket. Awtrey claimed Kareem was elbowing him in the neck. The Bulls went on to win the first round series in seven games over the Pistons, though Sloan went out for Game 7 with a torn plantar fascia. The Bulls won Game 7, but without Sloan against the Bucks in the conference semifinals the Bulls were swept 4-0 as Abdul-Jabbar averaged 34 points. Sloan as spectator still was ejected from Game 3. Bob Weiss and Rick Adelman subbed for Sloan.

“It was a huge rivalry back then,” said Embry.

The then “baby” Bulls also played the Bucks in the playoffs in 1985, Michael Jordan’s rookie season. It was a veteran Bucks team populated by good-but-not-good-enough players to get through the Eastern Conference in its golden era with Boston, Detroit, Atlanta and Philadelphia playing at high levels. The Bucks were 36-5 at home under Don Nelson and devised zone defenses and double and triple teams to attack Jordan. Jordan mostly playing point guard in the series to give him room still averaged almost 30 per game with eight assists and 48 points in Game 3. The Bulls lost 3-1.

The curiosity about that series was the back story before the playoffs and helps explain why Bulls teams play out seasons.

The Reinsdorf group had just come into control of the team during that season. Ron Thorn was let go as general manager, replaced by Jerry Krause. Thorn’s longtime friend Kevin Loughery was coach and likely on the way out as well.

That was sealed when Loughery tried to divine a playoff opponent.

The Bulls that season were 3-3 against Milwaukee and 0-5 against the 76ers. So Loughery, though no one admitted to it, apparently tried to maneuver the Bulls into the playoff matchup with the Bucks. The Bulls needed to lose to Atlanta in their last home game. It became so obvious that fans began shouting “Tulane Bulls,” for the collegiate scandal at the time. The Bulls blew a 16-point lead after three as Loughery sat the starters until the Hawks were ahead by 10. The starters then returned with fans screaming about a thrown game, which was shocking to the new owners. Loughery was fired after the season, the Bulls lost in four and Bulls coaches always have played to win.

Bulls/Bucks has produced many highlights. Perhaps there are some new ones to come.