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Old foes Celtics and Bucks renew long-dormant playoff rivalry

Rugged 1980s playoff rivals Boston and Milwaukee have not met in the post-season since 1987 epic.

Don Nelson looks on

On Sunday in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, the Boston Celtics will renew a playoff rivalry versus a once fiercely familiar foe in a series history that has lain silent - after a thrilling seven-game series long ago - for 31 years.

For the first time since their epic 4-3 eastern semifinals win in 1987, the Celtics will face the Milwaukee Bucks, a team they faced off against four memorable times in the 1980s in the Eastern playoffs.

And before that in 1974, the two foes met for the NBA title - back when Milwaukee was in the Western Conference - in a titanic seven-game championship series.

The two franchises share a green uniform (albeit different shades), a legendary Buck coach/Celtic player in Don Nelson, iconic playing surfaces and tradition.

The old Boston Garden was known for its classic parquet design while the 1970s/80s Bucks played on a multi-colored court specially painted by celebrated artist Robert Indiana.

From 1974-87, the Celtics played the Bucks in the playoffs five times, as much as they met any other foe, including the arch-rival 76ers (1977-80-81-82-85).

Yet amazingly it has been just over three decades since the two rivals have met in the second season. In 1987, a beaten and battered Boston team led 3-1 but almost blew that eastern semifinal series to a determined Milwaukee club led by veterans Sidney Moncrief, Jack Sikma and Terry Cummings.

After the upset-minded Bucks rallied to tie 3-3, it took a gutsy late Celtic comeback in game seven to keep Milwaukee from rallying to win at Boston Garden.

The 119-113 Celtic come from behind win turned out to be for Nelson, the winningest coach in Milwaukee franchise history, his last game as Bucks head coach after 11 years at the helm.

Playoff series history: Boston 4 series wins, Milwaukee one

27-game playoff series record: Boston 16 wins, Milwaukee 11

1987: Boston 4, Milwaukee 3 East semifinals

1986: Boston 4, Milwaukee 0 East Finals

1984: Boston 4, Milwaukee 1 East Finals

1983: Milwaukee 4, Boston 0 East semis

1974: Boston 4, Milwaukee 3 NBA Finals

Boston vs Milwaukee 1974 Finals

The classic 1974 Finals was a unique series, with the road team winning five of the seven games. The losing Bucks won both overtime games, in game two and six.

The game six epic was a double overtime thriller in the Garden. The teams alternated wins throughout the unpredictable series, with Boston taking games one, three, five and seven.

John Havlicek appeared to have given the Celts their 12th title with nine points in the second OT of game six, including two banner-scraping baseline jumpers over the outstretched 7-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Hondo’s last basket, a rebound off his own misss, gave the Celtics a one-point lead in the final seconds.

But with Celtic star center Dave Cowens on the bench having fouled out, Jabbar got the last laugh that night with a long right baseline running hook over backup center Hank Finkel to tie the series 3-3 with a 102-101 victory.

But Cowens would be back with a vengeance in game seven.

Game 7

In game seven of the epic 1974 NBA Finals, the Celtics faced the tall task of beating Milwaukee on the road. Buck center Abdul-Jabbar was in his youthful prime at age 27, and enjoyed nearly a six-inch height advantage - which was probably close to a foot when reach is included - over Cowens.

Plus, Buck guard and all-time great Oscar Robertson was playing his final game, and wanted desperately to go out a champion in his 14th and final season.

As a Cincinnati Royal star throughout the 1960’s, his fine clubs had never been able to get by the Celtics, and the aging superstar wanted nothing more than to avenge those many losses by going out a champion at their expense.

The Bucks had forced a seventh game by winning a double overtime classic in Boston just two days earlier, when Jabbar’s long running baseline hook over Celtic backup center Hank Finkel gave Milwaukee a see-saw 102-101 victory.

Cowens had fouled out earlier in overtime, or the outcome may well have been different, with the Celtics likely celebrating title number 12 at home.

Havlicek had traded baskets with the 7-2 Jabbar throughout the final extra session, scoring nine of his 36 points in the second OT, but Kareem got the last shot in.

Yet a hustling play by Cowens that came to epitomize his career happened late in that classic sixth contest. Dave switched off on a pick defensively to cover Robertson, then used his quick hands to poke the ball away from the Hall of Famer.

The speedy center then out-sprinted the 6-5 guard for the loose ball, which rolled into the backcourt. Cowens dove for the ball and slid with it near the sidelines while the loose leather bobbled in and out of his arms. Oscar trailed the play and never left his feet, almost in disbelief at the bigger man’s reckless dive.

Cowens left a sweat streak about 10 feet long on the old Garden parquet, probably along with some skin. While the Bucks argued that he never had possession of the ball, the referees correctly ruled that the 24-second clock had nevertheless run out to give Boston the ball.

Not long after, Cowens fouled out with just 13 points on five of 19 shooting, and his absence contributed to the series-tying Buck win. Determined to redeem himself, the proud Celtic star came out firing in game seven.

Boston came up with a new strategy to aid Dave. The Boston braintrust decided to pressure the aging Robertson hard with defensive ace Don Chaney while he brought the ball upcourt.

And then once Milwaukee was into its halfcourt offense, coach Tom Heinsohn had Paul Silas, Havlicek and others also double down and help while Cowens fronted and battled Jabbar for position.

After he was told about the change in defensive strategy, Dave would relate years later in an interview that he felt like saying, “Yes! I am finally going to get some help on this guy.”

After having the redhead go one-on-one for six games with the much bigger man who was the total focal point of their offense, Jabbar had averaged almost 34 points per game, so the Celtic brass felt it had to try something.

By not having to expend as much energy defending the 7-2 Jabbar alone, it seemed as if Cowens had been unchained and energized for the decisive contest.

On offense, the muscular Cowens used his superior speed and quickness to take the slower Jabbar out on the floor and drive by him, taking advantage of Kareem’s relative lack of lateral quickness.

The high-leaping, aggressive Cowens won the opening jump over Jabbar and tapped it it to Havlicek, who fed a cutting Chaney perfectly for a layup that set an immediate, positive tone in the contest for the Celtics.

As time ran out in the first period, Dave bombed a 25-footer from the right side at the buzzer that went straight in to give Boston a 22-20 lead.

The Celtics lengthened the lead late in the half as their defense stymied Jabbar and Robertson. Dave triggered the vaunted Celtic fast break with a defensive rebound and airborne outlet pass that led to a 16-footer by Don Nelson.

Shortly afterward, Cowens nailed consecutive foul line jumpers that gave the visitors a 53-40 intermission edge. Their defensive strategy, cooked up between games six and seven by Celtic patriarch Red Auerbach, Heinsohn and the legendary Bob Cousy, was working almost to perfection.

Robertson, who had played for Cousy in Cincinnati before their falling out led to the Big O’s trade to Milwaukee, was hounded into perhaps the worst playoff game of his career at a very inopportune time.

If nothing else, the all-court pressure put on by the quicker Celtics rushed the Bucks and took vital seconds off the shot clock, forcing hurried decisions and field goal tries. With veteran leader and playmaker Robertson flustered, the Buck offense floundered.

As a result, scoring machine Jabbar was amazingly held without a single point in the entire second stanza and for half of the third period. This was a major drought when one realizes that Kareem came into game seven averaging his number per outing in the 1974 playoffs (33).

Robertson would connect on just two of 13 shots from the field in his swansong (one was a breakaway layin), and was limited to just six points by the harassment of veteran defensive standout Chaney and talented second-year backup Paul Westphal.

More than once, Westphal reached in with active hands and poked the ball away cleanly from the struggling Robertson, who was also bothered by a sore hamstring.

Yet the Bucks managed to inch within 71-66 after three quarters as their sellout crowd of 10,938 came to life. Westphal, subbing in for a foul-plagued Chaney, scored a layup off a 75-foot Havlicek pass after Cowens won a key jump ball for a 77-68 lead.

A Silas transition finger roll via another sharp-eyed Hondo assist built the lead to 11 with 8:50 remaining. Milwaukee sharpshooting guard Jon McGlocklin bounced in a 15-footer to keep the hosts alive.

Cowens, playing with five fouls, then rebounded his own miss and gave Jabbar a taste of his own medicine by swishing a quickly-released 11-foot jump hook from the right side of the lane.

Dave did not shoot a sweeping hook like Kareem, but he possessed a very good jump hook, only usually not from as far out as the one he had just made.

A Jabbar foul shot and a pretty fast break finish by McGlocklin cut the lead to 81-73, yet the normally shooting-challenged Silas banked in a short one-hander in the lane.

Unheralded Buck backup swingman Mickey Davis continued his fine play in place of injured Lucius Allen to help keep Milwaukee in the game.

The older brother of future long-time NBA guard Brad Davis, Mickey scored the last of his 15 points on a spectacular over the head, two-handed reverse layup while being fouled. His remarkable three-point putback edged the Bucks within 83-76.

Westphal responded by dribbling to his left toward the baseline before he rose up and drilled a clutch 17-foot fadeaway. Westy then hit JoJo White perfectly in stride with a fine feed past McGlocklin in a two-on-one fast break situation. White’s subsequent layup gave Boston an 87-76 margin with 6:02 left.

Yet when Jabbar bounced in a right baseline hook to bring the sellout crowd to its feet with approximately 4:35 left in the final period, the Celtic lead again appeared tenuous at 87-79. Did the Bucks have one last run left?

Boston called on its version of old reliable to stem the tide. The Celtics went to Havlicek, and despite suffering through an off shooting day, the clutch veteran delivered.

Hondo curled off a left side Silas/Cowens double screen, caught a pass and lifted Jabbar off his feet with a fine head fake. John then ducked under his left arm and quickly drove the lane to his right past the airborne center.

John then went into the air, jacknifed his body past Davis and McGlocklin while absorbing a bump, then banked in a tough runner.

Havlicek displayed a rare show of emotion, pumping both fists in a short downward motion, before collecting himself to add the free throw that completed the critical three-point play.

It was almost as if the driven Hondo could taste the long-sought first title of the post-Russell era which would vindicate his legacy. It would be his first title of any kind without Russell, or in college without Jerry Lucas.

Cowens then switched off onto Robertson and knocked the ball out of his hands, which forced the Bucks into a bad shot that Westphal rebounded.

Moments later, Dave floated out to the deep right corner and swished a 21-footer over a warily sagging Jabbar for a 93-79 bulge at the 2:59 mark. Next, a tired and discouraged Kareem tellingly left two foul shots well short.

At the other end, Boston closed the door with a clever bit of body control and quick reactions. Cowens missed a half hook in the lane that richocheted off Jabbar’s hands to a nearly-prone Westphal, who was just getting up off the hardwood after being floored while setting a screen.

Paul then hung in the air as he looked to shoot a short jumper over the looming 7-2 Buck center. But at the last second, he double-clutched and instead tossed a beautifully improvised short alley-oop pass to Cowens past Jabbar. Dave caught the ball in the air on the right side of the lane and cleverly kissed it in off glass before Kareem could recover.

That was the final nail in the Milwaukee coffin.

Late in the game, Robertson’s frustrations boiled over when he was called for tripping Westphal on a fast break reach-in steal attempt. Oscar went ballistic after the questionable call, and only the fact that it was a game seven in his career finale kept the respectful referees from giving the aging superstar a technical.

Havlicek, who enjoyed a great series, was named Finals MVP even though he tallied a modest 16 points on six of 20 shooting in the decisive contest.

His second fourth quarter three-point play on a foul line jumper as he was hit in the stomach capped a decisive 11-0 spurt that put the game well out of reach, 98-79.

But the game seven MVP was definitely Big Red. The final box score showed Cowens with game-high totals of 28 points and 14 rebounds, compared to 26 and 13 for Jabbar.

Yet the considerable numbers did not show his great intangible contribution, as well. Or how much energy the fiery redhead had supplied his team. Nor how his defense had helped Kareem wear down and fade. He sank just six of 11 free throws in the game and went scoreless for over a third of the game in the crucial middle section when Boston took command.

Or how Cowens had ignited the deadly Celtic transition game with his defensive rebounding and quick outlet bullets, often firing his passes in midair while coming down with the carom.

One of the few legitimate criticisms of Kareem was that he tended to coast at times, although some of that was brought on by his languid, graceful style of play and the lack of emotion he showed on the court.

Things appeared to probably have come a little too easily for him on the basketball court due to his size, ability and skill, so he was probably not quite as hungry as the undersized redhead. Three titles at mighty UCLA and another one in his second NBA season had perhaps dulled his desire a bit.

Not so for Cowens, who was an under-publicized relative unknown who helped transform previous non-basketball power Florida State into a national contender. Not a household name high school recruit like Jabbar, he had never even been able to compete for an NCAA title, let alone win one. Dave was all desire, athleticism, hoop smarts and skill.

Thus Cowens attacked that main Kareem weakness with some of his strongest assets, chiefly relentless all-out hustle, quickness, perimeter skills and intensity.

As Jabbar trudged to the Buck bench in the final minutes, the defeated big man stopped to congratulate Cowens with a hearty handshake which was returned by the dogged competitor.

Due in large part to the scrambling defensive strategy of Boston, Jabbar only took 21 shots in the decisive seventh contest, six below his series average for attempts to that point.

He also converted only 10 field goals after making 14.5 baskets per contest over the first six games - well below his 54 percent shooting accuracy to that point in the title series.

Striding off the court while wearing his red Buck warmup top immediately after his final loss, Robertson looked back over his shoulder at the celebrating Celtics with a mixture of disbelief and disdain. How did they do it again, he seemed to be asking.

In the jubilant Celtic locker room moments later, Cowens hugged coach Heinsohn. teammate spoured champagne over the head and mutton-chop sideburns of beloved team captain Havlicek.

Cowens was the MVP of game seven but Havlicek was fittingly named Finals MVP, and finally had led Boston to their first post-Russell championship.

The monkey was off the backs of Hondo, Heinsohn and the rest of the team - after having authored the best record in franchise history in 1972-73 (68-14) yet losing 4-3 to the rival Knicks (with Havlicek injured) in the Eastern finals for the second straight year.

Welcomed back to Boston hours later that Sunday evening of May 12, 1974 by a large throng, Dave celebrated throughout the night with elated fans, and then fell asleep on a public park bench like the Huck Finn character the Newport, Kentucky native seemed to be.

Boston vs. Milwaukee: 1983-87

In 1983, Milwaukee and former Celtic turned Buck head coach Don Nelson handed Boston its first-ever 4-0 sweep. The embarrassing win over a dissension-riddled club hampered also by a flu-stricken Bird signaled the end of Bill Fitch’s tenure as head coach - and the beginning of K.C. Jones’ successful run.

Nellie also fanned the fames of the rivalry by calling Boston guard Danny Ainge a “dirty player,” drawing the ire of his former coach Red Auerbach. The Celtics would not forget either slight.

In 1984, Boston earned a measure of revenge by knocking off the Bucks 4-1 in the eastern finals. The Celtics took the firstthree contests but Milwaukee narrowly avoided a return sweep with a game 4 win at home. Bird posted 27.4/10/6 line in the series.

In 1986, Boston got that revenge 4-0 sweep of the Bucks in the eastern finals en route to title number three of the decade by rolling into the Final with an 11-1 playoff record. After winning the title, they were 82-18 on the season.

Boston won the four games by an average of 15 ppg as Bird tallied a near triple-double (25.3/9.5/8).

Years later, Nelson would contend that he “never had a team swept by Boston.” When presented with the historical evidence proving otherwise, Nellie conceded “that must have been a pretty good team.” No kidding.

The year 1987 featured the best Celtic/Buck series of the decade. Hobbled by severe foot injuries to McHale, Walton, Wedman and Parish, the Celtics nevertheless built a 3-1 lead after a thrilling 138-137 double overtime win at Milwaukee as Bird poured in 42 points.

But the Bucks rallied to win games 5 and 6 to force a decisive seventh contest at the Garden. Milwaukee appeared poise to finish off the weary Celts, leading by nine with five minutes to go.

But then Jerry Sichting, in for Ainge who had sprained his knee, canned two clutch 17-footers. Bird swished an 18-footer and canned six straight foul shots to extend his streak of made free throws in decisive playoff games to an incredible 43 in a row.

DJ blocked a baseline shot by former Seattle championship mate Jack Sikma, then knocked the ball out of bounds off the Buck center as he hurtled over the Milwaukee bench to further inspire the late rally.

Boston held the Bucks without a basket over the final stretch run and won 119-113 by out-rebounding Milwaukee, 57-27. A gutty Parish yanked down 19 boards despite multiple sprained ankles. Sikma, in his first season as a Buck after seven All-Star years in Seattle, made all 35 free throws he attempted in the classic series.

It turned out to be Nellie’s last game as Buck coach after 10 successful seasons. Despite six straight Central Division titles, he never got Milwaukee to the Finals because either Boston or Philly eliminated them every year from 1981-87.

Nelson, a shrewd observer and clever player in his own right, uttered perhaps the ultimate classic line about Bird’s greatness that season. While watching the Celtic layup line in pre-game warmups, he told an assistant “look, there are four average players.”

When Bird joined the four, Nellie insightfully offered that “now there are five great players.”

What a great tribute. Ironman Bird averaged 29.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 7.4 assists a game in the epic series while playing 330 of a possible 346 minutes. McHale added 24.2 points and 10.7 rebounds despite playing on a broken foot and a sprained ankle.

True grit.

What will happen in 2018? With stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward sidelined by injuries, the series looks to be a tough one. However, I think coach Brad Stevens and the remaining Celtics will find a way to get past the Bucks in six or seven games.

Which could set up an epic second round matchup with the rising 76ers, Boston’s greatest Eastern Conference rival over the years.

In eight Eastern Finals meetings, the Celtics hold a 5-3 series edge over the 76ers.

In non-conference final meetings, Philadelphia did beat an aging, defending champion Boston in the 1977 eastern semis, 4-3. Meanwhile, Boston defeated Philly in the 2012 east semis 4-3, in the 1969 east semis 4-1 and in the 2002 first round 3-2.

Against the 76ers’ predecessor Syracuse Nationals, the Celtics were 4-3 in playoff series between 1953 and 1961. So overall, Boston is 12-7 against the Nationals/76ers in the post-season.

In exactly 100 playoff meetings, Boston holds a 54-46 advantage over Philly/Syracuse.

But that is getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Boston first has to beat the Bucks, and the talented young 76ers (riding a 16-game win streak) have to beat solid Miami.

But it is nice to think about a second round renewal of another historic playoff rivalry.

To contact author Cort Reynolds directly, email him at

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