1974: Celtics versus Bucks (The Big O’s Farewell)

Background

The Celtics briefly struggled after Bill Russell retired in 1969, missing the playoffs in 1970 and 1971. In 1973, they reeled off a team-record 68 wins behind league MVP Dave Cowens, but they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New York Knicks after All-Star John Havlicek was lost to a shoulder injury. In 1974, the team returned the bulk of their lineup and dominated the east to the tune of 56 wins. In the playoffs, Boston traded wins with the Buffalo Braves before narrowly winning game six by a single basket to advance to the conference finals against the defending champion Knicks. The Celtics convincingly won the series in five games to advance to their first NBA Finals since the days of Russell.

After their dominating 1971 championship season, the Bucks looked to repeat in the following years. Their repeat bid fell short in 1972 at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers, and in 1973 they were shocked in the conference semifinals by the Golden State Warriors. In 1974, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led Milwaukee to a league-best 59 wins, earning his third MVP award in four years. In the playoffs, the Bucks beat a Lakers team that was missing the retired Wilt Chamberlain and an injured Jerry West in five games. In the Western Conference Finals, Milwaukee easily swept the Chicago Bulls to reach their second NBA Finals in franchise history.

Lineups

The Celtics starting backcourt was comprised of All-Star point guard Jo Jo White alongside shooting guard Don Chaney. In the frontcourt, Boston started veteran and former sixth-man John Havlicek at small forward next to power forward Don Nelson and fellow All-Star center Dave Cowens.

Off the bench, Boston used Paul Westphal as the primary backup at guard and Paul Silas served as the first forward off the bench. Hank Finkel spelled Cowens at center, and Phil Hankinson, Art Williams, and Steve Kuberski sparingly played throughout the NBA Finals series.

The Bucks starting backcourt consisted of former MVP Oscar Robertson at point guard. Ron Williams initially started at shooting guard — replacing injured Lucius Allen — but lost his spot to Mickey Davis in the Finals. Milwaukee’s frontcourt was made up of Bob Dandridge at small forward, Cornell Warner at power forward, and three-time MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center.

Milwaukee fielded a very short bench, as Jon McGlocklin served as the first man off the bench at guard, and Curtis Perry spelled the forwards. Players to play sparingly in the NBA Finals included Russ Lee, Terry Driscoll, and Dick Garrett.

Game One: Bucks 83, Celtics 98

Kareem outplayed his counterpart Cowens in his individual match-up, but the Celtics team play proved to be the Bucks’ undoing as they answered every Milwaukee comeback attempt with a run of their own. The MVP finished with 35 points, 14 rebounds, and 3 blocks, but his supporting cast was largely absent as Robertson only contributed 6 points of his own, and Dandridge only made 6 of 17 shots from the field. Havlicek led the Celtics with 26 points, Cowens chipped in a double-double, and Chaney and White combined for 34 points as Boston stole homecourt advantage in the series.

Game Two: Bucks 105, Celtics 96 (OT)

The Bucks responded well in game two, with Kareem again outplaying Cowens to the tune of 36 points to 17. The Celtics center had a shot blocked that would have won the game in regulation, and Milwaukee prevailed in overtime. The Bucks’ supporting cast stepped up as Dandridge scored 25 points, and Robertson had a near triple-double of 10/7/9. White led Boston with 25 points, but the series was now tied headed back east.

Game Three: Celtics 95, Bucks 83

Back at home, Boston ramped up their pressure and forced the Bucks into 27 turnovers as they cruised to their second win of the series behind Cowens and Havlicek’s combined 58 points. Kareem turned in a disappointing 26 points, and no other Milwaukee player scored more than 16. For the second time in the series, the Bucks trailed and faced a must-win in game four.

Game Four: Celtics 89, Bucks 97

Milwaukee coach Larry Costello changed up the starting lineup by inserting Mickey Davis at shooting guard, a move that paid off as Davis scored 15 points. Without the Celtics’ defensive pressure, Robertson was able to initiate the offense easily, and Kareem scored 34 points to go along with Dandridge’s 21. Havlicek erupted for 33 points, but the Bucks had now tied up the series as it headed back to Milwaukee for game five.

Game Five: Bucks 87, Celtics 96

The Bucks hung close in the first half, but the Celtics pulled away in the second behind Havlicek and Cowen’s combined 56 points. Kareem’s 37 points fell by the wayside as Milwaukee shot poorly as a whole and lost their second home game of the series. The Bucks now trailed the series 3-2 and faced elimination back in Boston for game six.

Game Six: Celtics 101, Bucks 102 (2OT)

A heavyweight bout saw the Celtics looking to clinch the championship at home. The teams hung close and traded baskets in the fourth quarter and overtime. Boston’s captain, John Havlicek, provided some unbelievable buckets down the stretch in the second overtime, but Kareem drained a sky-hook with the clock winding down to give the Bucks the win and send the series back to Milwaukee for game seven. Havlicek finished with a game-high 36, and Kareem scored 34 of his own as the series was now tied 3-3.

Game Seven: Bucks 87, Celtics 102

The Celtics built an early lead thanks to clutch outside shooting from Cowens. The Bucks made a late charge to close to within three points in the first minute of the fourth quarter, but Boston had another answer with an 8-0 run. A second run late in the fourth allowed the Celtics to put the game out of reach and clinch the championship. Cowens finished with 28 points, and Havlicek, White, and Silas combined for 56. Kareem tallied 26 points and 13 rebounds, and Robertson made only two shots in what would be the final game of his career.

Aftermath

For his stellar play throughout the series, John Havlicek was named Finals MVP. Looking to repeat in 1975 as champions, the Celtics won their division with 60 wins. They were upset in the conference finals, however, by the Washington Bullets, but the team returned to the NBA Finals a year later in 1976.

The Bucks struggled in 1975 after Robertson retired, and Kareem eventually demanded a trade to a major market team. Milwaukee sent their franchise center to the Los Angeles Lakers, and the team would wallow in mediocrity before returning to the conference finals in 1983. As of 2016, however, the team has yet to return to the NBA Finals.

 

 

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