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Bucks and Nuggets Yearn to End 50-Year Title Droughts

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In the Milwaukee Bucks’ streak-buster loss to Dallas in December, despondent radio announcer Ted Davis described a futile “foul and hope” ending. “Hope,” lamented Davis, “is a city in Arkansas.” For the surging Bucks and Denver Nuggets, however, it’s a bit more. With the right roster moves, the Bucks poise to win its first title in 50 years with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Meanwhile, Denver is just four wins from its first NBA Finals or basketball championship appearance ever. A review of five decades of frustration reveals how the quest for a title fuels the cities’ hearts in a longing for long-overdue glory.

1970’s

Bucks

Milwaukee enjoyed its only title in 1971 after a lucky coin flip landed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In 1974, Kareem’s trademark “skyhook” forced game seven against the Boston Celtics (the Bucks initially played in the Western Conference).

Despite this, Boston easily won gave seven 102-87. Kareem is a far too philosophically sophisticated man to place curses. However, the Bucks permanently slumped after trading him in 1975. Milwaukee never again won 50 games or made it past the second round in the ’70s.

Nuggets

Denver succeeded in the ABA, reaching the Finals in 1976 against the New York Nets. Unfortunately, Dr. J (Julius Erving) won game one with a walk-off shot and 45 points.

Then, he dominated the deciding game six with 31 points and five steals. Thankfully, Denver’s success continued to the NBA. After defeating Milwaukee in seven in the 1978 West Semifinals, the Nuggets quickly fell behind 1-3 to the Seattle SuperSonics. Seattle closed out game six 123-108, but the Nuggets continued their status as a consistent contender. Incredibly, ten years of playoff heartbreak prepared to devastate Denver and Milwaukee.

1980’s

Milwaukee Bucks

In 1981, remarkably successful coach Don Nelson (with the most wins in NBA History) led Milwaukee to a team-record 60 wins. Devastatingly, the Sixers played perfect keep-away at the end of game seven to end the season.

In 1986, Milwaukee swept New Jersey and slipped past Philadelphia in seven. Tragically, Boston swept the Deer in the East Finals. It would be 15 years before the Bucks achieved parallel success.

Denver Nuggets

After two non-playoff years, the Nuggets reached the second season nine straight times. Denver appeared in the West Finals in 1985, just one of four overall appearances. The opponent? Guess who: the Lakers. LA thoroughly dominated Denver 153-109 in the deciding game five behind Magic Johnson, Kareem, and 25 points from James Worthy. Denver and Milwaukee exhausted their success, leading to a challenging decade.

1990’s

Milwaukee Bucks

After back-to-back first-round losses, the Bucks missed the postseason in seven straight seasons. Thankfully, George Karl joined as head coach in 1998. A lockout shortened the 1998-99 campaign, and Milwaukee completed the campaign at 28-22. In the first round, Indiana swept Milwaukee 3-0, but the series could have switched without a Dale Davis tip-in despite great Bucks defense.

Denver Nuggets

The golden bits only made the playoffs three times in the ’90s. Despite a 42-40 record, Denver defeated Seattle in an epic one-eight upset, capped by a remarkable overtime game five in Washington.

Unfortunately, Utah edged the Nuggets in a seven-game West Semifinals battle. Similar to the 2007 We Believe Warriors, the Nuggets made for only a fun story. The 2000s led to tantalizing promise for the city, but for the Bucks, it was mostly a decade of futility.

2000’s

Milwaukee Bucks

In the fabled 2001 season, Milwaukee scrapped to the East Finals, heroically winning game six in Charlotte in a seven-game triumph. In arguably the most damaging loss in franchise history, however, the Bucks lost game five in Philadelphia by a second. With a 3-2 lead and game seven at home, Philadelphia had virtually won the series.

After trading Ray Allen (don’t ask Bucks Lead why), Milwaukee began an 18-year playoff series win drought. The Bradley Center hosted too many half-capacity crowds while Brett Favre and the Packers stole the Wisconsin sports spotlight.

Bucks’ Playoff Drought: From 2001 to 2019 Promise

Denver Nuggets

Between 2004 and 2013, Denver lost in the first round nine times. The only exception? A 2009 West Finals heavyweight match against, you guessed it, Kobe Bryant and LA. Crucial Kobe free throws gave LA game one, but Denver won games two and four to force a 2-2 tie. Depressingly, the Lakers defended home court before racing past the Nuggets in Denver 119-92. By 2014, it seemed neither team would ever reach the NBA Finals. However, intelligent drafting made success a suddenly viable possibility.

2010s-2020

Milwaukee Bucks

When the Bucks rolled dice for a risky Greek prospect, few questioned the choice too strenuously. What did the struggling franchise have to lose? After several first-round losses, Mike Budenholzer brilliantly modernized the Deers’ outdated, overly physical system. After a 60-win 2019 campaign, the Bucks announced their arrival with a scintillating game-five closeout in Milwaukee versus overrated Boston.

True, Toronto surprised the Bucks with a 4-2 victory despite an 0-2 hole, but most fans rationalized that Milwaukee just wasn’t quite ready. Regrettably, there’s no disputing that the coronavirus disruption threw off Milwaukee’s focus. The Deer struggled in the bubble, even losing game one of the opening round to Orlando. After a listless 1-4 loss to Miami, Bucks fans could only grumble about errors.

Denver Nuggets

The valuable metals’ 2014 selection of Nikola Jokić 41st and Jamal Murray seventh in 2016 proved brilliant. After five years in the lottery, Denver suddenly discovered success. After sneaking by San Antonio in seven games to start the 2019 playoffs, Denver crushed Portland by 26 to take a 3-2 lead.

Disappointingly, Portland rallied to win the series. This season, Denver played reasonably well at 46-27, but few fans gave them a chance to make it past the #2 Clippers. Yes, we know about LA’s poor play in games 5-7, but don’t belittle Denver. The team played brilliantly, refusing to blink in the three elimination games.

Both Denver and Milwaukee have the talent to reach the Finals. Will the achievement happen, or will it be another decade of frustration?

Future

With Milwaukee willing to significantly spend this offseason, per Adrian Wojnarowski, Bucks fans have legitimate reasons for optimism. Denver is much closer to their goal but must defeat LA four times in five opportunities to reach the Finals. Fifty years brought incredible excitement for two smaller cities, but somehow no championships. Giannis (hopefully) reaches for a contract’s pen, while Denver must adjust for game three despite brilliant play from Jokić.

As NBA.com’s Shaun Powell observes, all it takes is one error to devastate dreams. No one mistake, however, whether it be a missed tip, blown assignment, or dropped game three, can deter an inevitable march to history. So, instead of short-selling two surging franchises, consider saving for an upcoming Bucks-Nuggets Finals, where a half-century of not-quite culminates in fully deserved satisfaction.

Playoff stats courtesy Basketball Reference. Follow us on Twitter @BucksLead for the latest Bucks news and insight.

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About Jeffrey Newholm

"Jammin Jeff" Newholm had been a basketball fanatic since his high school days, and remained a casual fan as a student in Whitewater. Wishing to check in as an active participant, he also completed a writing certificate program at UWM. He loves seeing Bucks games more than any other activity in hometown Milwaukee and especially screaming really really loudly to get someone to miss a free throw. Twitter: @JeffreyNewholm

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