As the Phoenix Suns jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the 2021 NBA Finals, handily beating the Milwaukee Bucks 118-105 on Tuesday, I got to thinking if they’d ever met in the playoffs before.
“But Fox,” you may object, “the Bucks haven’t been to the Finals since 1974, and the other two times they played for the title, it was against the Celtics and the Bullets. What do the Suns have to do with that?”
Well, you’ll notice for one thing that those two prior Finals appearances featured the Bucks as champions of the Western Conference. You’ll also notice that the Bucks and Suns have a common Finals opponent in their franchise history; the Suns lost to the Celtics in 1976, two years after Milwaukee fell to them. And if they were good at the same time…
Since Milwaukee wasn’t realigned to the East until the 1980-81 season (when the Dallas Mavericks were expanded into existence and the league realigned them and the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs into the West while Milwaukee and Chicago departed for the East), that means they had quite a bit of shared history with Phoenix in the NBA’s wackiest decade.
The Bucks and Suns both entered the league in the same year, part of an expansion ahead of the 1968-69 season that was itself part of the NBA expanding from just nine teams in 1965-66 to 17 teams to tip off the 1970-71 season.
Side note, but impress your friends:
The Chicago Bulls joined in 1966-67.
A year later, the Seattle Supersonics and San Diego Rockets joined the league in what would also be the Hawks’ last year in St. Louis.
Pro ball came back to Milwaukee (where the Hawks had resided until 1955) for the 1968-69 season, and the Bucks were joined by the Suns. Meanwhile, the Hawks moved to Atlanta, ultimately establishing that city as the end destination of two Milwaukee sports franchises—the Boston Braves of baseball moved to Milwaukee in 1953 (and signed a 20-year-old kid by the name of Henry Aaron a year later) and that squad landed in Atlanta in 1966.
The league paused to draw breath in the 1969-70 season, fielding the same number of teams as the previous season for the first time in four years.
But in 1970-71, three more teams joined the fun, as the Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) joined the league alongside the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Here’s where I pause to point out something weird.
You notice that four of those teams I just mentioned in that list ended up either making the Finals or winning the title in the 1970s? The Bucks were the fastest, winning a title in just their third year in existence thanks to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson landing in their laps, but the Suns made the championship round in 1976, the Blazers won it all in ’77, and the Sonics fell short in ’78 only to win it all in ’79.
In five out of six years (1974 through ’79), at least one Finals participant hadn’t even existed before 1967. And the Rockets—who moved to Houston for the 1971-72 season, the first of an incredible three failed attempts by San Diego to hold on to a pro sports team they’d previously acquired, the other two being the Clippers (who moved to Los Angeles just six years after the Braves had been relocated to San Diego in 1978) and football’s Chargers (who joined the nascent AFL in 1960 and landed in Los Angeles in 2017)—got there in 1981.
And oh by the way, speaking of Houston, that’s three Celtics championships in eight seasons (1974, ’76, and ’81) that came at the expense of former expansion teams, a fourth to come in 1986.
In fact, since 1965, Boston has titles against former expansion teams (the ones just mentioned)…and the Lakers, whom they beat in 1965, ’66, ’68, ’69, ’84, and 2008. They haven’t beaten a team other than the Lakers that existed when Bill Russell was a rookie since they beat the Warriors in 1964.
But anyway, back to the Suns and Bucks.
Those teams were both good at the same time (the Suns went 48-34 in their third year in the league and were successful pretty much constantly throughout the 1970s), even made two out of three Finals in the course of three seasons, but they never seemed to run into each other along the way.
In fact, the only other time (before now) that the Bucks and Suns have met in the playoffs was 1978.
Part of that was the Suns’ incredibly rotten playoff luck. In that 48-34 season, they finished third in the Midwest Division behind the 66-16 eventual champion Bucks and the 51-31 Bulls.
Downside? Playoff rules at the time said the top two teams in each division qualified.
Phoenix was actually tied with the Lakers for the third-best record in the West. They’d have gone through to the playoffs in any of the other three divisions (and been the second-best team in the East.) They missed the playoffs.
A similar thing happened in 1972. The Bucks won the division, going 63-19. The Bulls went 57-25.
The Suns? 49-33 and the only way they would see playoff action would be to go to the arena where a game was happening and buy a ticket. The Baltimore Bullets went 38-44 and won their division, but Phoenix got left out.
The Suns were lousy for the next three seasons, posting losing records in 1973, ’74, and ’75.
By 1976, however, they were 42-40, once again good for third in their division.
This time, however, the NBA had expanded the playoffs to include a fifth team from each conference so there were 10 out of 18 teams (the New Orleans Jazz joined in 1974-75 and would move to Utah five years later without ever having made the playoffs); the 4 and 5 seeds got a best-of-three play-in series to get into the conference semis; it was best-of-seven the rest of the way.
That’s how the Suns got Seattle in the first round, disposed of the defending champion Warriors in a shocking upset in the Western Conference Finals, and finally fell short at the hands of the Celtics for the whole kit and caboodle.
Milwaukee? They went 38-44, won their division in their first year without Kareem, but got dumped by the Detroit Pistons (who themselves had gone 36-46 to take second in the Midwest Division) in the first round two games to one.
So they could’ve crossed paths—it was the first time both teams had made the playoffs—but it wasn’t to be.
The Bucks and Suns both missed the playoffs in 1977, each team finishing at the bottom of the Midwest and Pacific Division respectively. Milwaukee’s 30-52 record was the worst in the West and second-worst in the entire league, beating out only the lowly New York Nets, who had been screwed over by the Knicks when they came over in the ABA merger prior to that season. They not only had to play their home games on Long Island (at Nassau Coliseum, home of the NHL’s New York Islanders until the Barclays Center got built and coincidentally reunited those two sports’ franchises in the same arena in 2015 when the Isles came over to the new Brooklyn arena to join the Nets, who’d been there since 2012), but they were forced to ship Julius Erving out to the 76ers.
How bad was losing Dr. J? The Nets went 22-60, worst in the league. The Sixers finished 50-32 and lost to Portland in the Finals, starting a run of success that would lead to a title in 1983.
Once again, however, back to the Bucks and Suns.
In 1977-78, the Bucks had reloaded. They had the core of their own 1980s run of playoff success starting to come together. Rookie Marques Johnson joined the squad, while fellow rookie Kent Benson would find himself traded for veteran Bob Lanier, who finished his career in Milwaukee and made an All-Star team in 1982.
They had Alex English and Quinn Buckner on that team as well, both guys in just their second year in the league. Buckner would play on that Eastern Conference finalist Bucks squad in 1982 as well before being traded to Boston for Dave Cowens, who’d actually been retired for two seasons and played just 40 games in Milwaukee in 1982-83 before going into retirement for good.
English, they traded for an Indiana draft pick that became Calvin Natt, who never played a game in Milwaukee. Bucks fans, your squad should’ve been the team of the ’80s but for the fact that your front office made Ted Stepien in Cleveland look like a savvy dealer.
The Bucks went 44-38 and snuck into the playoffs under Don Nelson, who was coaching his first full season at the helm for the Bucks.
The Suns, meanwhile, rebounded from a 34-48 finish in 1977, a season where they actually scored more points than they allowed and should’ve won 43 games with their point differential—still to this day one of the most stunning underachievements in NBA history.
They were a youth movement as well, though not as green as the Bucks; everyone on their roster who logged game action was younger than 30, but only three of their nine players to play at least 15 minutes a game—Walter Scott, Alvan Adams, and Alvin Scott—were under 25. The first two were 23; Scott was 22.
The Suns were also a team on the rise; they lost to Seattle in the Western Conference Finals in 1979 and to the Lakers in that round in 1984, making the playoffs in what would be a total of eight straight years between 1978 and ’85.
And for the first and only time before 2021, the Suns and Bucks finally met in the playoffs. They were both in the same conference. They were both good at the same time.
And the NBA had by that point expanded to a 12-team playoff format, where the two division winners got first-round byes like the top two teams in pro football during the NFL’s long 12-team playoff format that was only expanded in 2020.
That meant the 49-33 3 seed Suns got the 44-38 6 seed Bucks (the Sonics and Lakers formed the other wild-card matchup, the second of three straight years those two teams would meet in the playoffs with the winner eventually going to the Finals, but again I digress) in a best-of-three.
The Bucks took Game 1 in Phoenix 111-103. They took Game 2 at home 98-94.
Which also means that Game 1 of the 2021 Finals is the first time the Suns have ever beaten Milwaukee in a playoff game. Granted, that’s been a lot harder to do since 1981, but in the 12 seasons they shared a conference, the Suns and Bucks met in the playoffs only once. They only made the playoffs in the same season twice, missing each other in the previous 1976 campaign.
But in the 1970s, Phoenix and Milwaukee were thorns in each other’s sides on the road to get to the playoffs in the first place. It’s worth remembering their 1978 dalliance as we focus on the competition between Chris Paul and Giannis Antetokounmpo to cement their legacy at the expense of the team that followed their squad into the NBA in the same year Richard Nixon got elected.