The winner-take-all battles in Milwaukee Bucks history haven't included much to smile about

JR Radcliffe
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Sunday will mark the 17th time in Milwaukee Bucks history that they've played in a winner-take-all playoff battle, and it hasn't been a happy history with a 6-10 record (and 3-8 in seven-game series).

Of course, the last one was just fine. Milwaukee won Game 7 in the 2021 Eastern Conference semifinals against Brooklyn in overtime last year, a thriller on the road to an NBA championship. It was only the second time the Bucks won a winner-take-all playoff game on the road. They'll look for a third at Boston on Sunday afternoon.

Here's what Milwaukee has done:

1974 NBA Finals: Boston 4, Milwaukee 3

Dave Cowens (left) and John Havlicek celebrate the 1974 NBA championship at the Milwaukee Arena.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar's famous sky hook in double overtime gave the Bucks a thrilling Game 6 win in Boston and brought the series back to the Arena, but Boston was able to win on the road behind 28 points and 14 rebounds from future Buck Dave Cowens. The 102-87 victory left the Bucks and their home fans disappointed. Could 2022 mark another playoff series between the teams in which the winner claimed three road victories?

1978 Western semifinals: Denver 4, Milwaukee 3

1978: Marques Johnson tries to get off a shot over the Denver Nuggets Anthony Roberts (left) and Darnell Hillman during game four of the Western Conference Semifinals on April 25, 1978. The Nuggets beat the Bucks, 118-104, and held off Milwaukee to win the semifinals in seven games. This photo was published in the April 27, 1978, Milwaukee Sentinel.

Milwaukee went down in the series, 2-0, before a resounding 143-112 victory in Game 3. Then, the sixth-seeded Bucks rallied for two wins after going down to the No. 2 Nuggets, 3-1. Marques Johnson was a force in his rookie year, and the Bucks weren't even expected to make the playoffs, let alone win a first-round series and make the next series competitive, so this was a moral victory. Denver's 57-44 rebounding edge in the final game proved too much to overcome.

1980 Western semifinals: Seattle 4, Milwaukee 3

Milwaukee's Marques Johnson was dumped unceremoniously on his back during a playoff game against the Seattle Super-Sonics at the Arena.

The Bucks had a 3-2 lead in the series but lost a heartbreaker at home in Game 6, 86-85, then fell on the road, 98-94. In Game 6, a late three-pointer from Brian Winters made the game look closer than it was, but Milwaukee did lead with 3:04 left before going into an offensive funk. In Game 7, Milwaukee Lincoln alumnus Fred Brown registered 10 fourth-quarter points to wipe out Milwaukee's six-point lead, and Gus Williams hit four big free throws in the last 16 seconds.

1981 Eastern semifinals: Philadelphia 4, Milwaukee 3

1981: After stealing the ball, Bucks star Marques Johnson fires a long pass to start a fast break against the Philadelphia 76ers during the sixth game of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the Milwaukee Arena on April 17, 1981. That's 76ers star Julius Erving at the far right. The Bucks beat the 76ers 109-86, but lost the series. This photo was published in the April 18, 1981, Milwaukee Sentinel.

Philadelphia became a massive thorn in Milwaukee's side during the 1980s, including here with a 99-98 win in Game 7 in Philly. The Bucks never led in the series but won every-other-game. Mickey Johnson went 0 for 7 in just 13 minutes, Quinn Buckner had a stomach illness and Philly was able to outmuscle the Bucks, even with Bob Lanier throwing punches and mixing things up. Brian Winters took an elbow that broke his cheek bone.

1984 Eastern first round: Milwaukee 3, Atlanta 2

Glenn "Doc" Rivers went up against Bob Lanier in the 1984 playoffs.

The Bucks saw a 2-0 lead evaporate but held serve at home in the first year of the new five-game format in the opening round. The second-seeded Bucks prevailed in lopsided fashion over the No. 7 seed in the final game, 118-89, despite 21 points from Marquette University legend Doc Rivers. The Bucks dominated from start to finish before a sellout crowd, then followed with a six-game win over the Nets in the next round (the only time in franchise history the Bucks actually won in 6 before 2021).

1986 Eastern semifinals: Milwaukee 4, Philadelphia 3

The Bucks' Sidney Moncrief gets off a shot against the 76ers' Charles Barkley during the 1986 NBA playoffs.

After Philadelphia had bounced Milwaukee from the playoffs in 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1985, Milwaukee finally broke through with a 113-112 win in Game 7. Julius Erving's 14-foot jumper before the buzzer was off the mark, and time expired as Charles Barkley and Ricky Pierce battled for the rebound. The Bucks went down with a loss in the opener and fell behind in the series, 2-1, but won in Philly in Game 4, 109-104, then held serve in Game 5 and 7.

1987 Eastern first round: Milwaukee 3, Philadelphia 2

Philadelphia's Julius Erving drove past Ricky Pierce of the Bucks Wednesday night. Milwaukee blasted the 76ers, 128-95

The Bucks compounded their newfound success against the 76ers with a win the following year, too, including a 102-89 win in the final game. Jack Sikma finished with 18 points and 21 rebounds, one of seven Bucks in double figures.

1987 Eastern semifinals: Boston 4, Milwaukee 3

1987: Boston's Danny Ainge (left) and Milwaukee's Sidney Moncrief tangle as Larry Bird looks on during second-quarter action in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the Milwaukee Arena on May 15, 1987. The Bucks won the game, 121-111, but the Celtics came back and won Game 7 and the series the following day. This photo was published in the May 16, 1987, Milwaukee Journal.

But the Bucks still couldn't punch their way through to the NBA Finals. The Bucks fell behind in the series, 3-1, but Sidney Moncrief scored 33 and 34 points in the next two games to set up the winner-take-all at Boston Garden against the top seed. That's where Boston prevailed, 119-113. Milwaukee had a 110-103 lead with 5:23 to play before going cold. Despite injuries limiting Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge and Robert Parrish, the Bucks were outrebounded, 57-27. When Paul Pressey fouled out in the final minutes, Milwaukee didn't have a defender who could stop Larry Bird.

More:The 1987 Bucks-Celtics playoff clash had everything: Coaching rumors, a gambling scandal, a fan-player altercation and seven dramatic games

1988 Eastern first round: Atlanta 3, Milwaukee 2

The Bucks' Jerry Reynolds (35) put up a shot in traffic against Atlanta in the 1988 playoffs, surrounded by Hawks defenders Dominique Wilkins (21), Randy Wittman (10)  and Kevin Willis (42).

In a battle between the No. 5 and No. 4 seeds, the home team won every game, capped by a 121-111 win for the Hawks in the decider. Atlanta had a 19-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, and the Bucks clawed back to within 10 points but never seriously threatened.

1989 Eastern first round: Milwaukee 3, Atlanta 2

Atlanta's Doc Rivers and Milwaukee's Sidney Moncrief reach for a loose ball in Game 4 of the Hawks-Bucks series in 1989 at the Bradley Center.

It was identical seeds and same teams a year later, but this time Milwaukee won in Atlanta, 96-92. The Bucks won twice on the road in the series, and the final game was particularly emotional and thrilling without Terry Cummings or Paul Pressey available. Milwaukee went on a 14-3 run after falling behind with 5:38 left, 83-79, buoyed by Ricky Pierce, who also hit a 22-footer with 1:31 left that served as the pseudo dagger. Dominique Wilkins missed a three-pointer to tie in the final 10 seconds.

2000 Eastern first round: Indiana 3, Milwaukee 2

2000: Tim Thomas gets off a pass in front of the Pacers' Sam Perkins during Game 3 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs on May 1, 2000. The Bucks won the game, 100-87, but lost the series.

Done in by 41 points from Reggie Miller, the prequel to Milwaukee's 2001 playoff run ended in disappointment with a 96-95 loss to the Pacers. Ervin Johnson split free throws with 6.5 seconds left, leaving the Bucks a point short, though Ray Allen's wild shot at the buzzer would have won the game if it had counted. Losing Sam Cassell to fouls with 2:30 left proved to be an issue, as was the case in Game 3 when Cassell was ejected. Milwaukee won its two games in the series by 13 points each and lost its three by 3, 13 and 1.

2001 Eastern semifinals: Milwaukee 4, Charlotte 3

Charlotte Hornets' Eldon Campbell and Milwaukee Bucks' Scott Williams battles for a loose ball on the floor during the first half of the opener of the Eastern Conference semifinals at the Bradley Center on May 6, 2001.

One of the great moments in Bucks history required a comeback from 3-2. Milwaukee scored a 104-97 win on the road in what might be Cassell's most important game as a Buck (33 points, 11 assists), and then came Glenn Robinson's signature moment in Game 7, when he scored 29 points, including a buzzer-beating three-pointer at the end of the third quarter. 

2001 Eastern finals: Philadelphia 4, Milwaukee 3

Philadelphia 76ers' Dikembe Mutombo fights for a rebound with Milwaukee Bucks' Sam Cassell (10) and Scott Williams (42) during the first half of game one of the Eastern Conference finals on May 22, 2001, in Philadelphia.

Then, one of the most dubious moments in Bucks history. Milwaukee won in Game 6 behind a virtuoso performance from Ray Allen, but in the series decider on the road, Milwaukee was hounded by a foul disparity and absence of Scott Williams, ruled out for Game 7 after the league office re-classified a Game 6 foul to a higher degree of flagrant. The Bucks lost, 108-91.

2010 Eastern first round: Atlanta 4, Milwaukee 3

Milwaukee Bucks' Carlos Delfino reacts after sinking a 3-point basket against the Atlanta Hawks in the 2010 playoffs.

The Bucks were the heavy underdog in the "Fear the Deer" season, but the sixth seed won a monster Game 5 on the road to take a 3-2 series lead. That led back into a deflating 83-69 Game 6 loss at the Bradley Center, followed by another clunker in Game 7, 95-74. 

2018 Eastern first round: Boston 4, Milwaukee 3

Milwaukee Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe (6) threads his way through Boston Celtics defenders during the first half of their playoff game  Thursday, April 26, 2018 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wis.


The home team held serve in every game, including a late-moment winner from Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 4. But Game 7 turned into a walkover for the second-seeded Celtics, a 112-96 Bucks loss despite 32 points on 11-of-18 shooting from Khris Middleton. The seventh-seeded Bucks used the series as a steppingstone to becoming the NBA regular season's best team each of the next two seasons.

2021 Eastern semifinals: Milwaukee 4, Brooklyn 3

Giannis Antetokounmpo (left) and P.J. Tucker of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrate the win after game seven of the Eastern Conference second round at Barclays Center on June 19, 2021 in Brooklyn.

Even after the other unforgettable moments of the 2021 postseason, there's an argument that this is the most important game of the run to the 2021 NBA championship. After the Bucks were guilty of a shot clock violation with 6 seconds left and holding a tenuous two-point lead, Brooklyn superstar Kevin Durant hit what appeared to be a go-ahead three-pointer in the final second ... but his foot was on the line. Instead of a Nets win, the game went to overtime, and the Bucks won a rock fight in the extra period, 6 points to 2. The Bucks went on to win their next two series to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe.

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