Growing up a Buck: The 2001 Playoff Run

Growing up a Buck: The 2001 Playoff Run

In this series, Matt Babcock shares his experience growing up around the Milwaukee Bucks organization since his dad, Dave Babcock, has been an executive with the team for 23 years. He also provides an inside look at the rise and fall of the Bucks during the late 1990s and early 2000s. For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here. For Part 3, click here.

After finishing the 2000-01 NBA regular season as the top team in the Central Division, the Milwaukee Bucks were headed to the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Thanks to my dad’s job within the Bucks’ front office, I was lucky enough to be along for the ride. As a 16-year-old kid, I routinely shot around with the team before games, spent time in the locker room before and after games, and even traveled with the team. Of all my fortunate experiences with the Bucks during that time, nothing compares to the emotional roller coaster of the 2001 playoff run. 

Here’s how I remember it happening...

The Bucks' first playoff series that year was against the seventh-seeded Orlando Magic led by head coach Doc Rivers. The previous season, the Bucks and Magic played a “do-or-die” game on the last day of the regular season. The winner would secure a playoff spot, and the Bucks won in a nail biter. George Karl and Doc Rivers seemed to regularly take jabs at each other in the media during that time and the two teams had suddenly established a testy rivalry with one another. 

However, the 2001 Orlando Magic team was a little different than the team the Bucks beat the previous season. The previous Magic team was led by a group of underdog journeymen, including Darrell Armstrong, Bo Outlaw, and Ben Wallace — they were a scrappy bunch of overachievers, which was their clear-cut identity as a team. Following the 1999-00 season, the Magic really opened up their wallets, signing superstar Grant Hill from the Detroit Pistons and young budding star Tracy McGrady from the Toronto Raptors. Their idea was, presumably, to have Hill be the leader and the face of the team as they slowly brought along McGrady. However, after signing that big contract, Hill only played four games that season as he battled ankle injuries — injuries that derailed the rest of his career, unfortunately. Subsequently, the idea of slowly developing McGrady was scratched and, suddenly, the Magic were dependent on the 21-year-old to carry their team. 

However, McGrady did not have any problems stepping into this role, averaging 26.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game that season. In the first-round playoff series versus the Bucks, McGrady was outstanding, averaging 33.8 points, 8.3 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game — superstar numbers. He did all of this while also holding All-Star Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson to only 14.8 points per game and 34.8% shooting from the field, which were well below his normal averages. I also remember McGrady relentlessly trash-talking “Big Dog,” infamously calling him “Puppy Dog.” Following that series, McGrady quickly became well known within the basketball world, and I guess you could say “a star was born.” He was a long, 6-foot-8 scoring machine who could essentially do everything on the offensive end. 

However, in hindsight, based on what I saw from McGrady in that series, I don’t think he maximized his full potential over the course of his career (although he was an all-time great player). Although not a bad defender, he had the potential to be elite. He could have had a Scottie-Pippen-type of career on the defensive end and become a two-way star, if he had really applied himself. This was an early lesson for me in evaluating players: just because a player has the tools to be a great defender does not mean he will be. Intent and effort are absolutely necessary for a player to be productive on the defensive end. Regardless, McGrady was great during that series and it is still one of the best individual performances throughout a playoff series that I have ever seen. Nevertheless, despite McGrady’s impressive performance during that series, the Bucks far outmatched the Magic talent-wise. The Bucks beat the Magic 3-1, and I suppose “Big Dog” got the last laugh in that matchup.

And on to the next round the Bucks went…

In the second round, the Bucks faced the Charlotte Hornets, who were led by star player Jamal Mashburn and second-year point guard Baron Davis. The first two games of that series went as expected; the Bucks protected their home court and won the tough games. The next two games were played on the road in Charlotte and that was an entirely different story.

As I mentioned, the Hornets’ top player was Mashburn. Having had somewhat of a roller-coaster career up to that point, the 28-year-old had really come into his own as a player. The Hornets traded for him the previous summer and it clearly seemed to be a good fit. At 6-foot-8 and a strong 240 pounds, the small forward from the University of Kentucky was a handful for any opponent. He could shoot from outside, handle the ball, post up, and pretty much score from all over the floor. He was simply a matchup nightmare due to his strength and versatility. He would be perfect as a combo forward in today’s modern style of play. In Games 3, 4, and 5 of that series, his value really showed, as he was the top scorer in each contest and led the charge for the Hornets to win three games in a row over the Bucks.

And like a whirlwind, the Bucks went from being up a comfortable 2-0 to down a terrifying 3-2. The tide had turned quickly, and the pressure was on the Bucks.

Despite the Bucks having gone to the playoffs the previous couple of seasons, the 2001 playoffs were my first real taste of how intense playoff basketball can be for everyone involved -- including the families of the players, coaches, and management. The NBA is big business, and when a team goes far in the playoffs, everyone wins on some level or another. Player values in free agency increase, coaches and management get raises or new job opportunities, and, of course, playoff bonuses get bigger with each round. The family room at the Bradley Center following a loss in the playoffs felt like a funeral. Needless to say, stress levels were high now that the team’s back was up against the wall, down 3-2.

Game 6 was played in Charlotte and it did not start off well. The Bucks went into the locker room at halftime down 10 points. However, in the second half, the “Big Three” of Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson lit it up. The Bucks outscored the Hornets 61-44 in the second half and won the game by seven points. Allen, Cassell and Robinson combined for 85 points. When it comes to perimeter shooting and scoring, they were probably the NBA’s best trio at the time (and they’re arguably one of the best ever). When Ray, Sam and “Big Dog” got hot, good luck trying to stop them!

That intense series would come down to one final deciding game. By that point, the Hornets had earned everyone’s respect and in Game 7, Baron Davis put on a show. The 6-foot-3, strong, explosive point guard diced up the Bucks’ defense off the dribble, scoring 29 points. But that game was played in Milwaukee, in our house, the Bradley Center. The Bucks closed out that series, winning by nine points. “The Big Three” came through in the clutch again, as Ray and “Big Dog” combined for 57 points, and Sam chipped in 17 points and 13 assists. 

The Bucks were moving on again. Now, to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they matched up against the Philadelphia 76ers, who were coached by Larry Brown and led by that season’s NBA MVP Allen Iverson.

The 76ers had the best regular-season record in the East that year, so Philadelphia had home-court advantage. After a few bogus calls, non-calls, and just poor overall officiating at the First Union Center, the 76ers unfortunately pulled out a win over the Bucks in Game 1. The matchup between Allen Iverson and Ray Allen quickly proved to be entertaining in and of itself, as Ray scored 31 points and Iverson had 34 in Game 1. It was pretty evident that this would be a showdown we would all remember.

The officiating in Game 1 was bad, but the team had to move on and get a win in Game 2 to tie up the series before heading back to Milwaukee — and that’s exactly what they did. The Bucks’ defense was able to hold Iverson to 5-26 shooting from the field and just 16 points. Just as important, Ray absolutely went off, netting 38 points and hitting seven three-pointers. Heading back to Milwaukee for Game 3, tied up 1-1 with the Sixers, the Bucks’ confidence was already high, but then the news came out that Iverson was not even traveling with the team because of a sore hip. Going into Game 3 without their star player, Coach Brown clearly instructed his 76ers to “muck it up.” The team was built around Iverson and his scoring ability; the rest of the roster was made up of tough defenders with relatively little offensive talent and “glue guys” -- players such as Eric Snow, George Lynch, Tyrone Hill, Aaron McKie, and veteran center Dikembe Mutombo.

The Sixers’ plan to make it a physical, sloppy game worked, as both teams struggled to score. Although it was an admirable effort, the Sixers could not overcome the Bucks’ talent without Iverson. Milwaukee defeated Philly 80-74, taking a 2-1 series lead. At that point, I couldn’t help myself from getting excited about the idea of traveling with the team to Los Angeles, where they would most likely face Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and the Los Angeles Lakers in the sacred NBA Finals.

The Bucks needed to get past the 76ers first though, and with Iverson returning, that wouldn’t be an easy task. Iverson returned from his injury in Game 4 as expected, and the Sixers won the next two games. The officiating continued to become more and more of a focal point in that series and the referees came under major scrutiny, especially after Game 4. There started to be a lot of chatter in the media about a conspiracy theory that the NBA and NBC did not want a small-market team like the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals. Needless to say, this series was quite dramatic.

The Bucks were up against the wall, again, and they needed to win two games in a row in order for my dream trip to L.A. for the NBA Finals to become a reality.

Down 3-2, the Bucks were facing elimination in Game 6 at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. Before that game, rumors circulated that a bellman at the 76ers’ hotel had found Iverson passed out drunk outside of his room earlier that morning. I’m not quite sure if that story is true or not, but I do know that I watched Iverson drop 46 points on the Bucks that night! Still, despite Iverson’s incredible game (in which he may or may not have been hungover), the Bucks won. This meant there would be a Game 7 in Philly — winner goes to the NBA Finals and the loser “goes fishing.”

Many fans in Milwaukee theorized that the NBA was trying to clear a path for Iverson and the 76ers to make the Finals. Then, the suspension of the Bucks veteran big man Scott Williams only added fuel to that fire. In Game 6, Williams, the “heart and soul” of that Bucks team, was called for a flagrant foul on Iverson. The day after the game, the NBA notified the Bucks that Williams would be suspended for Game 7, which was a huge blow.

Game 7 went on without Williams and Iverson was great again, scoring 44 points. The 76ers beat the Bucks, and just like that, the Bucks’ playoff run was over.

It was devastating...

The saddest part? I don’t think that Bucks team was ever able to fully recover from that loss. Within a couple of years, Milwaukee traded Ray Allen (to the Seattle SuperSonics), Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson (to the Atlanta Hawks), and Sam Cassell (to the Minnesota Timberwolves). The team fired head coach George Karl, and general manager Ernie Grunfeld left to join the Washington Wizards. The Bucks went into rebuilding mode.

I really don’t have any interest in debating whether that 76ers series was fixed; I sincerely hope it wasn't. However, there is no question that the poor officiating directly affected the results of that series. Years later, I’m still left with a lot of “what if?” questions that send my mind spinning. If the officiating was better in that series, would the Bucks have beaten the Sixers? Could the Bucks have defeated the Lakers? Would my dad have a championship ring? Would that Bucks core have stayed together longer? Would Ray have retired a Buck and have his No. 34 retired in the rafters? What would Michael Redd’s career have been like if Ray was never traded? What number would Giannis Antetokounmpo be wearing right now if No. 34 was retired? Would we even have Giannis? And on and on...

Despite the disappointing conclusion of that 2001 season, I can say, without hesitation, that from 1998 to 2001 were the greatest years of my life from a basketball perspective. I was an impressionable teenager going through a critical time in my life from a developmental standpoint, as a basketball person and as a young man. I was lucky enough to be able to experience the ins and outs of the NBA, learn the game from some all-time greats, make many lifelong friends, and create memories that now seem more like a dream than reality, memories that will certainly last a lifetime.

Check out Part 5 of this series, which fast forwards and looks at the present-day Bucks.

Also, check out Matt Babcock's latest 2021 NBA Mock Draft here.

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