1971: Bucks versus Bullets (Alcindor’s Arrival)

Background

The Bucks initially struggled after joining the league in 1968, but a coin flip awarded them the opportunity to draft franchise center Lew Alcindor, immediately making the team contenders. After losing in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1970, Milwaukee traded for former MVP Oscar Robertson, and the team stormed through the next season with 66 wins, including a 20-game winning streak. In the playoffs (now as part of the west), the Bucks easily defeated the San Francisco Warriors in five games to reach the Western Conference Finals. Facing the reigning conference champion Lakers, Milwaukee dispatched Los Angeles in five games to clinch their first NBA Finals birth in franchise history.

After struggling in their early years, the Baltimore Bullets drafted Wes Unseld in 1968, spurring a 36 win turnaround that earned the young center the both the league MVP and Rookie of the Year awards. In 1971, the team won 42 games in the regular season and entered the playoffs as the number two seed. In the first round, the Bullets won three straight after dropping the opener to the Philadelphia 76ers but needed seven games to close out the series. In the Eastern Conference Finals, Baltimore fell behind 2-0 against the New York Knicks but won three straight to take a 3-2 lead. After a game six loss, the Bullets won a close game seven thanks to a late basket by Gus Johnson, sending Baltimore to their first NBA Finals.

Lineups

Milwaukee’s frontcourt consisted of former league MVP Oscar Robertson at point guard alongside shooting guard Jon McGlocklin. In the frontcourt, Bob Dandridge was the starting small forward next to power forward Greg Smith and towering 7’2″ center Lew Alcindor.

The Bucks utilized a very short bench, with Lucius Allen providing minutes as the third guard on the roster, and Bob Boozer served as a third big man in the frontcourt. Players to see few minutes in the NBA Finals include McCoy McLemore, Jeff Webb, Dick Cunningham, Bob Greacen, and Marv Winkler.

For the Bullets, Earl Monroe started in the backcourt at point guard with Kevin Loughery at shooting guard. The frontcourt was made up of Jack Marin at small forward alongside high-flyer Gus Johnson at power forward, and Wes Unseld served as the starting center in the middle.

Baltimore also used a short bench, as Fred Carter served as the primary backup at guard, and John Tresvant provided depth in the frontcourt as a third forward. Players to see few minutes include Gary Zeller, Dorie Murrey, and George Johnson.

Game One: Bullets 88, Bucks 98

Milwaukee led wire-to-wire as Alcindor tallied 31 points and 17 rebounds despite playing with foul trouble. Robertson chipped in 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists in the opening win of the series. Monroe and the rest of the Bullets struggled from the field as they fell to the favored Bucks in game one.

Game Two: Bucks 102, Bullets 83

The Bucks again dominated the Bullets en route to a 19-point victory, thanks to an overwhelming third quarter. Alcindor was a monster inside with 27 points and 24 rebounds, complemented by Robertson’s second straight game of 22 points. Baltimore now faced a 2-0 deficit as they again struggled from the field.

Game Three: Bullets 99, Bucks 107

Marin, Unseld, and Loughery combined for 60 points, but they were outpaced by Alcindor, Dandridge, and Robertson’s 72 as the Bucks used the inner quarters to build a commanding 3-0 series lead.

Game Four: Bucks 118, Bullets 106

The Bucks led wire-to-wire again, and Milwaukee’s “Big Three” combined for 78 points en route to the second sweep in NBA Finals history. The Bullets were simply over-matched in the series, even though Unseld delivered a triple-double and Carter exploded for 28 points in the finale.

Aftermath

As the star of the team, Lew Alcindor was named Finals MVP for the champion Bucks. The following season they would again reach the Western Conference Finals, only to lose to the Los Angeles Lakers. Two seasons later, however, Milwaukee would again claim a conference title and make it to their second NBA Finals in four years.

Coming off their disappointing sweep in the 1971 NBA Finals, the Bullets made a major trade by sending Earl Monroe to the New York Knicks in exchange for Mike Riordan and roster pieces. The team wouldn’t make it back to the championship series, however, until the 1975 season — a four-year drought.

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