Milwaukee’s Best

When Boston went up 3-2 to the Magic in last seasons Eastern Conference Semifinals, it drew an eerie comparison to the 1974 Finals. In that series, John Havlicek and the Celtics were up 3-2 on Kareem, the Big O and the rest of the Milwaukee Bucks. In both instances, Boston was one win away from closing out the series. As we know in ’09, the Magic pulled out a Game 6 victory at home, forcing the series back to Boston for a deciding Game 7. In ’74, in what is considered one of the greatest games in NBA history, according to Michael Bradley below, the Bucks stood their ground and also defeated the Celtics, in Boston Garden no less. The Celtics would eventually win Game 7 in ’74 and lose it in ’09, history failing to repeat itself. Yet both Game 6’s defined the Celtics opposition. Read on as Bradley takes us back to that memorable Game 6 in ’74, in a double OT thriller for the ages.

SLAM 25 Old School, 1974 ECF.

by Michael Bradley

It was left to Tom Heinsohn, Hall of Famer, championship coach, former beer salesman, broadcaster and general Boston bon vivant, to spoil the fun. “Don’t forget to write that we came back and ripped them in Game Seven—at their place,” he growled. How could we forget, Tommy? You, Red Auerbach, Bill Russell and anybody else who ever wore Celtic green have been reminding us about the franchise’s many successes for decades now. Of course you won. The Celtics never lost the final game of any NBA championship series. Ever. So chill out, and give somebody else a chance at the spotlight for a while.

This story is about the ’73-74 Bucks, the Team that Almost Made Milwaukee Famous. The team that came within one game of overcoming injury and exhaustion to win its second NBA title in four years and secure itself a place in NBA history. The team that boasted legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson in the same starting lineup. The team directed by Larry Costello, one of the most underrated coaches in NBA history. The team that won Game Six of the ’74 Finals series with Boston, 102-101, in a double-overtime thriller—a game that ranks as one of the most exciting contests in NBA history. And yes, Tommy, the team that then returned home and lost the deciding contest by 15 points. Happy?

“Our 1974 team wasn’t as good as the ’71 [NBA championship] team, because it wasn’t as healthy,” Milwaukee guard Jon McGlocklin says. “This sounds like a ‘what if…’ excuse, but [guard] Lucius Allen had torn his knee up, and Oscar had a groin pull that had gone up to his stomach. I had a calf tear and was taped up from groin to ankle.

“When you look at the championship teams, they’re healthy, and things go well for them.”

Things went pretty well for the Bucks throughout the ’73-74 season, too. Once again, they rolled to the best record in the NBA, 59-23, boasted the league’s Most Valuable Player (Abdul-Jabbar) and reached the Finals with relative ease, losing just one game in series triumphs over Los Angeles and Chicago. Although the team was clearly built around Abdul-Jabbar, it was by no means a one-man outfit. Robertson may have been years removed from his amazing ’61-62 season, when he averaged a triple-double (30.8 ppg, 12.4 rpg, 11.4 apg) over 79 games and gave old-timers reason to scoff at the hysteria over today’s single-game versions, but “he was still Oscar,” as McGlocklin puts it.

Forward Bob Dandridge, meanwhile, was one of the league’s most talented all-around players. He was the Bucks’ second-leading scorer and third-best rebounder. Dandridge was a fine passer, a strong wing defender and an excellent free throw shooter. “I knew the fundamentals,” Dandridge says. “That allowed me to make the Bucks team when I first came into the league [in ’69]. I played good defense, committed few mistakes and was a quick learner.”

McGlocklin provided a perfect complement to Robertson in the backcourt. He was an excellent long-range spot-up shooter who would have been lethal in today’s game, where penetrating guards and ball rotations find gunners positioned behind the three-point line. Role players like forwards Curtis Perry, a fine defender and rebounder, and Mickey Davis, a solid ballhandler who was called upon to help break presses after Allen hurt his knee during the playoffs, rounded out the squad.

And Costello pulled it all together. A member of the ’67 Philadelphia 76ers NBA title unit, Costello was a demanding coach who favored three-hour practices and forced his teams to concentrate on the game’s minutiae, no matter how much they hated him for it. He and assistant Hubie Brown, who hadn’t yet decided to perm his hair and favored garish checked sportscoats, gave the Bucks a formidable bench brain trust. “He was inexhaustible,” Abdul-Jabbar says of Costello. “You couldn’t wear him out. And we needed that.”

Boston, meanwhile, may not have had as many Hall of Famers as some of its predecessors, but it had a quick, versatile team that pressed, ran and was perfect for the ages-old Red Auerbach system of double-screens and high-low post maneuvers.

“Of all the teams I played on, that was probably the most athletic,” says Don Chaney, a starting guard on the ’74 squad. “We had big guys who were able to get out on the break and fill the wings. On defense, our frontcourt players could switch onto smaller guys, and since our backcourt was big, it could guard guys up front.”

SLAM 25 Old School, 1974 ECF.Leading the way was tireless veteran forward John Havlicek. Few players in the game understood how to get off a shot and set up an opponent better than Havlicek, who led the Celtics with 22.6 ppg in ’73-74 and was a member of eight championship teams during his career.

Boston’s other two standouts were center Dave Cowens and guard JoJo White. Cowens may have been undersized at 6-9, but few players in the league were as physical or aggressive. His 15.7 rebounds per game were second in the league, and his 294 fouls were among the top 10 also. White’s kick-start jump shot, meanwhile, was unorthodox until it settled into the net. They were joined in the starting lineup by Chaney, a defensive specialist, and Don Nelson, whose one-handed shot looked ready for the time capsule by ’74. Paul Silas, one of the finest rebounders in the history of the game, led the bench brigade, along with guard Paul Westphal. The Celtics had won 56 games and subdued the Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) and the New York Knicks to reach the finals. The win over the Knicks was particularly satisfying, since New York had ruined the Celts’ dream ’73 season, in which they won 68 games, with a stunning victory in the Eastern Conference finals, including a 94-78 seventh-game rout in Boston Garden.

“We had a great year [in ’73], but that was the Knicks’ year,” Silas says. “We came out with a real sense of purpose the following season.”

Milwaukee and Boston spent the first five games of the ’74 Finals refuting the value of homecourt advantage. Milwaukee coughed up the opener at home, 98-83, and needed overtime to win the second contest, 105-96, also at intimate Milwaukee Arena. The series shifted to Boston for the third game, a 95-83 Celtic victory, but the Bucks evened the count two days later with a 97-89 triumph. If Milwaukee felt confident because two of the three remaining games would be played in Beertown, it sure didn’t show on the court. The Bucks dropped a 96-87 Game Five decision and headed to venerable Boston Garden facing extinction.

“We felt we would definitely win it at home,” Chaney says. “Our confidence level was extremely high. When I left my house to play that game, I was planning what I would do after we won.”

That was the Celtic mystique at work. Ever since the late ’50s, when Boston began dominating the NBA, the team’s players believed themselves destined to win the title every year. And when it didn’t happen, as in ’73, when an injury to Havlicek torpedoed the playoff aftermath of the great regular season, they approached the following season with even more resolve.

That’s what Milwaukee faced when it entered the Garden. But there was more to worry about than just history. McGlocklin’s calf was killing him. “I didn’t run for three months after that series,” he says. Robertson was running on fumes after five games of battling the Celtic press almost single-handedly. Yet the Bucks cruised to a 27-19 lead after one quarter, on the strength of nine points from Dandridge and eight from Abdul-Jabbar. At halftime, the lead was 47-40, and Milwaukee still led by six, 69-63, after three periods. Abdul-Jabbar was dominating Cowens inside, scoring 26 of his team-high 34 points during the first 36 minutes. Despite that, as the fourth quarter dawned, the Celtics believed the game was still theirs. “We knew somebody would come through,” Chaney says.

SLAM 25 Old School; 1974 ECF. And the Celtics did come back. With 1:02 remaining, Cowens nailed a jumper from the corner to make it 86-86. After a Milwaukee timeout, Cowens harassed Robertson out near midcourt and forced a 24-second shot clock violation. Instead of milking the clock, White took a long jumper from the right side that wouldn’t go down. But Chaney grabbed the rebound. With 0:10 to go, Cowens missed a hook on the right baseline, and the bearded, wild-haired Davis corralled the miss.

The Bucks called timeout to set up a final play that worked almost perfectly. Robertson drove the lane and dished to McGlocklin, who had been left alone along the left baseline. His shot should have been automatic, but McGlocklin’s left leg betrayed him on the jump, and the ball bounced harmlessly off the rim. Overtime.

The first extra period was rather uneventful. With just 0:13 left, the Celtic press claimed another victim, and Havlicek headed downcourt with a wayward Milwaukee pass. His leaning 12-footer bounced off the rim, but Hondo grabbed his own miss and put it back in to knot the count at 90 and prolong the excitement.

Things opened up in the second OT, and the teams traded one-point leads back-and-forth. With 0:07 remaining, Havlicek came off a double screen and nailed a 10-footer along the right baseline to give Boston a 101-100 advantage. Milwaukee called for a timeout.

Inside the Bucks huddle, Costello diagrammed the final play. But by the time he was finished, the page was covered with so much ink that some of the Milwaukee players were confused. “Larry had me in three different positions on the legal pad,” McGlocklin says. “When I asked Mickey [Davis] what was supposed to happen, he said, ‘I don’t know. I was in two spots.'” Before either of them had figured out what to do, Robertson was inbounding the ball from midcourt. He threw it in to Abdul-Jabbar in the high post, just right of the foul line. The center pivoted and looked toward McGlocklin, who had spotted up on the left side but was covered by White. “He was supposed to get the shot,” Abdul-Jabbar says of the guard. Abdul-Jabbar pump-faked a pass to Davis, who was cutting down the lane. Then, he went to work.

Abdul-Jabbar dribbled once toward the baseline, took two long steps and rose above Celtic center Henry Finkel, who had entered the game when Cowens fouled out in the second OT. He fired his signature sky hook toward the hoop, just before Chaney arrived from behind. “I just wasn’t quick enough,” Chaney says. Abdul-Jabbar was a little beyond his comfort zone when he lifted off, but it didn’t matter. “Normally, a guy would take a jumper from there,” Silas says. “I didn’t think it would go in.” The ball settled neatly into the bottom of the net to give the Bucks a 102-101 win.

“I felt the shot had a good chance,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “I didn’t get pushed and could get up and get the shot off cleanly.”

The Celtic players, so long accustomed to winning these types of games, were stunned. “When that sucker went in, our hearts just sank,” Silas says. “We had to go back to Milwaukee.” Chaney agreed. “It was like the world stood still.”

It remains one of the greatest games in NBA history. No matter what Heinsohn says.