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Pecking Order: The Rebirth of the Bulls-Bucks Rivalry?

Matt Peck Avatar
April 15, 2022

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What up, Bulls Nation. Just a few more days until we get to watch the Bulls begin their first playoff series in five years. Despite how the regular season ended — and the expected short playoff run — that’s still a very cool thing. We waited through some long, awful seasons for this. [Read the column my guy Big Dave wrote earlier this week, offering Bulls fans some much-needed perspective on all that.] The Bulls might not be contenders in the ring just yet, but they’re on their way to the arena with their boxing shorts on. At least I believe they are. And y’all know me, as skeptical as they come.

Speaking of boxing … Grayson Allen.

Just kidding.

Kind of.

Seriously, though, I wonder if we might be on the cusp of a new rivalry being formed. Or an old rivalry being revived? It’s crazy to think about, considering how long they’ve been division opponents, but the Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks have never really been bitter rivals. Not like Cubs-Brewers, and nowhere near the level of Bears-Packers. Why?

The simple answer could be that whenever one of these two teams was good, the other was irrelevant. [Though that hasn’t stopped Bears fans from hating the Packers with a burning passion for the past 30 years of Favre and Rodgers owning them. What’s that saying about how it can’t be a rivalry between a hammer and a nail?] It could also be that despite decades of seasons as close-proximity teams, the Bulls and Bucks have faced each other in the playoffs just four times. Total. In their collective history. That’s wild.

So, in service to this potential new rivalry, let’s take a quick trip through history and revisit the previous playoff matchups between the Bulls and Bucks.

It’s The Pecking Order.

1974 Western Conference Finals — Kareem & Oscar vs Norm, Love & Jet

The 1973-74 Bulls outlasted the Detroit Pistons in seven games to win the opening round and advance to the first conference finals appearance in franchise history. Their reward? The Milwaukee Bucks, recently crowned 3-time league MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his lethal point guard teammate Oscar Robertson. Oh, goody.

This Bulls squad was no joke. They won 54 regular-season games, led by the iconic core of Bob Love, Norm Van Lier, Jerry Sloan and Chet “The Jet” Walker. Love was coming off of three straight All Star seasons and still playing at an elite level, as he averaged 21.8 points and 6 rebounds on the year. Stormin’ Norman earned the first of his three career All-Star selections, averaging 14.3 points and 6.9 assists while being an absolute menace on the defensive end. Walker also earned All-Star honors this season for his seventh and final time, putting up 19.3 points and grabbing 5 rebounds per contest.

Unfortunately, they were no match for Kareem and Oscar. It didn’t help that Sloan went down with an injury in Game 6 of the previous series against Detroit. The Big Fella averaged an absolutely monstrous 35 points and 19 rebounds, while Big O racked up 17 points and 10 dimes per game as they swept the Bulls 4-0 on their way to the Finals. Game 2 was the highlight for Chicago, as they stormed back in the fourth quarter after trailing by 14. But 27 points apiece from Chet and Norm wasn’t enough, as the Bulls lost 113-111. They lost the other three games by a combined 55 points.

1985 Eastern Conference First Round — Rookie MJ

Fresh off winning Rookie of the Year, a baby-faced Michael Jordan led his team into battle for his first NBA playoff series. It was the Bulls’ first playoff series since 1981, and just their second overall since 1976.

His Airness scored 23 points in his playoff debut, though on a fairly inefficient 7-for-19 shooting, as the Bulls took a loss. He improved in Game 2, scoring 30 points and dishing 12 assists, but the Bulls lost again. Game 2 also featured a scuffle between Orlando Woolridge and Sidney Moncrief. These teams definitely didn’t like each other, and one regular-season game even featured Bucks guard Paul Pressey leaving on a stretcher after catching an elbow and Bulls guard Wes Matthews being ejected for throwing a punch.

The Bulls squeaked out a 109-107 win in Game 3, thanks to 35 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and 4 steals from Michael. Woolridge chipped in 28. But the Bucks star duo of Moncrief and Terry Cummings was too much, as they combined for 52 points to close out the Bulls in Game 4. Pressey got a bit of revenge himself, scoring 20 points and racking up 6 steals.

It was the first of many playoff heartbreaks for MJ on his ascent to being the best player in the league. By the time he’d see Milwaukee in the playoffs again, he’d be a six-time All Star and two-time Slam Dunk Champion with four All-NBA First Team and three All-Defensive First Team selections. Oh, and an MVP.

1990 Eastern Conference First Round — Cusp of the Dynasty

By 1990, the Bulls were no longer a young phenom surrounded by a bunch of washed-up guys and no-name misfits. Michael had a real team, with help from budding young stars Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. They won 55 games and got the third seed in the East, but still finished second in their division behind their rivals and the NBA’s defending champions, the Bad Boy Pistons.

The Bulls had their eyes on Detroit. Isiah Thomas and Chuck Daly’s crew had beaten down MJ and the Bulls in each of the previous two postseasons. First in the conference semis in 1988, and then in the conference finals in 1989.

Thus, the Bulls’ first-round series with Milwaukee was nothing more than a footnote. The Bucks managed to steal Game 3, but the Bulls won Games 1, 2 and 4 by a combined 55 points. Jordan averaged 36.7 points in the series. But while the basketball contest wasn’t particularly close, plenty of physical battles still raged on the court.

Perhaps the less-talented Bucks were trying to take a page out of the Bad Boys’ playbook. Greg Anderson and Alvin Robertson kept hammering away at Michael and his teammates. Things boiled over in Game 4.

After watching his teammates get hacked from the bench for the first three games of the series, Will Perdue got the call from coach Phil Jackson. Perdue checked in and promptly fouled Robertson so hard he probably went back in time. [Hey Will! He’s my friend! He was on our show this week!]

Anderson got ejected for elbowing Ed Nealy, but not before Jordan charged Anderson for the offense. Horace went after Robertson, even throwing a few punches, but they were separated before either could land a blow. Both benches cleared before things were finally settled.

The Bulls were slowly learning to stand up to bullies. They’d suffer one more heartbreak against Detroit two rounds later, but these Bucks weren’t going to distract them from their goal of getting to that rematch and winning it.

It would be 25 years before the Bulls and Bucks saw each other again in the playoffs.

2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals — Enter the Greek Freak

The Bulls won 50 games in the 2014-15 regular season to capture the third seed in the East. Similar to DeMar DeRozan this season, a veteran Pau Gasol chose the Bulls in free agency and proved to the doubters that he could still be a difference-maker. Gasol made All-Star and All-NBA Second Team honors, complimenting Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and first-time All Star Jimmy Butler. They faced the upstart Bucks in the first round.

The Bucks improved substantially from the previous season, going from 15 wins to 41. It was an odd collection of players. They had just drafted Chicago product Jabari Parker with the second overall pick in the draft, but lost him to a season-ending injury after just 25 games. Midseason, Milwaukee traded Brandon Knight, their leading scorer, for Michael Carter-Williams in a three-team deal with Phoenix and Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, two younger Bucks were starting to make names for themselves. Khris Middleton, the 2012 second-round pick, had arrived from Detroit the previous season. And then there was Giannis Antetokounmpo, the scrawny 20 year old from Greece who the Bucks swung big on with the 15th pick in the 2013 draft. A prospect with unknown potential and raw mechanics, but freakish athleticism.

This series appeared at first like it would be a breeze for the Bulls, who were perhaps already looking down the road at a likely second-round matchup with their nemesis LeBron James, now back in Cleveland. They jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, paced by Jimmy Buckets in Games 1 and 2 and Rose with a “I’ve still got it” 34-point Game 3.

Game 4 was a back-and-forth battle. A Gasol and-1 tied the game at 90-90, and the Bulls got the ball back for what everyone assumed would be one final possession. Either the Bulls get a bucket and the sweep, or we go to overtime. Instead, a turnover and a sneaky out-of-bounds play in the final second allowed the Bucks to steal Game 4 and stave off elimination.

The Bucks then won Game 5 in Chicago to send the series back to Milwaukee for Game 6. That’s when the Bulls put the hammer down, but not before some epic hot-headedness. Now, back in Game 4, Bulls sharp-shooter Mike Dunleavy Jr had gotten into a tussle under the hoop with young Giannis. They had to be separated by their teammates.

Late in the second quarter of Game 6, the Bulls are up by 30, embarrassing the Bucks off of their home court. Rose kicks out to Dunleavy in transition. As he rises to take a three, Giannis comes flying in from the other side of the court, body-checking Dunleavy into the courtside seats.

The young Freak was clearly frustrated, and did a stupid thing. Heck, I did plenty of stupid things when I was 20. Ask my parents. [Actually, don’t.] That’s what being 20 is for. But the Bulls [and Dunleavy, who even hit his shot before the cheap shot] got the last laugh. Giannis was ejected, and the Bulls went on to win 120-66 to close the series and end the Bucks’ season.

2022 Eastern Conference First Round – Defending Champs with a Punk

That leads us to today. Young Giannis grew into MVP Giannis, whose Bucks are the defending NBA champions entering these playoffs. The Bulls, meanwhile, are finally back in the playoffs after years spent wallowing in irrelevance after the breakup of that team, whose last dance ended when they bowed out to James’ Cavs in six games the next round.

The Bucks are heavy favorites, having swept the Bulls in the regular season. Two of the games were close, the other two weren’t. The first game this season featured a cheap shot from notorious dirty player Grayson Allen. His foul on Alex Caruso [nothing close to a respectable basketball foul] and the ensuing fall fractured Caruso’s wrist, causing him to miss a large portion of the season. Derrick Jones Jr and Nikola Vucevic have since sent Allen tumbling on a couple of plays, but nothing egregious yet.

Will we see the tension boil over at some point in this upcoming series? If things get chippy, will these Bulls stand up for themselves the way their dynasty predecessors finally learned was necessary? Even if the Bulls bow out of this series to the better team, is an old and dormant rivalry about to be renewed?

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to find out. The NBA needs good rivalries. Now that LeBron has left the Eastern Conference, and the Bulls are decent again, they need a new rival. And there’s something so wonderfully easy about hating a team from Wisconsin. It’s in my DNA.

Throw that Game 1 jump ball already.

See Red. Be Good.


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