Growing up a Buck: The 2001 Playoff Run
In this series of stories, the son of a longtime front office executive, Matt Babcock, shares his family's journey to the NBA. He also provides an inside look at the rise and fall of the Milwaukee Bucks during the late 1990s and early 2000s, from his perspective.
After finishing the 2000-2001 NBA regular season as the top team in the Central Division, the Milwaukee Bucks were headed to the playoffs as the number two 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 would routinely shoot around with the team before games, be in the locker room before and after games, and even travel 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 versus the seventh-seeded Orlando Magic led by head coach, Doc Rivers. The previous season the Bucks and the 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 make jabs at each other in the press during this 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 and it was their clear cut identity as a team. Following the 1999-2000 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 Grant Hill be the leader and the face of the team as they slowly brought along McGrady. However, Grant Hill only played four games that season after signing that big contract as he battled ankle injuries — injuries that would derail 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. He did not have any problems doing so, averaging 26.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game that season. In that first-round playoff series versus the Bucks, McGrady was outstanding, averaging 33.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 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 a .348 field goal percentage, both well below his normal averages. McGrady also relentlessly trash-talked “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.” A long 6’8” scoring machine that could essentially do everything on the offensive end — he was incredible! However, in hindsight, based on what I saw from McGrady that series, and although an all-time great player, I do not think he maximized his full potential over the course of his career. 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, 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 overmatched the Magic talent-wise. The Bucks beat the Magic three games to one 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 two 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 Jamal Mashburn. Having had somewhat of a roller-coaster career up to that point, Mashburn, 28 years old at the time, 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 6’8” 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 game 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 with the teams competing, 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’s 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 backs were up against the wall, down 3-2.
Game 6 was played in Charlotte and it did not start as planned. The Bucks went into the locker room at halftime down 10 points. However, in the 2nd half, the “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 2nd half and won the game by 7 points — phew! “The Big Three” finished with a combined 85 points — it was amazing! The trio was probably the best perimeter shooting and scoring group in the league at the time, and arguably one of the best of all-time. When Ray, “Big Dog”, and Sam got hot, good luck trying to stop them!
That intense series would come down to one final series-deciding game. By that point, the Hornets had earned everyone’s respect, and in Game 7 Baron Davis put on a show. The 6’3” strong and explosive point guard diced up the 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 9 points! “The Big Three” came through in the clutch again, as Ray and “Big Dog” combined for 57 points, and Sam scored 17 points to go along with 13 assists. The Bucks were moving on again — to the Eastern Conference Finals! They would be matched up against the Philadelphia 76ers, coached by Larry Brown and featuring star player and that season’s league MVP, none other than Allen Iverson.
The 76ers had the best regular-season record in the East that year so they had home-court advantage and Game 1 was played in Philadelphia at the First Union Center. After a few bogus calls, non-calls, and just poor overall officiating, the 76ers pulled out a win over the Bucks in game 1, unfortunately. The matchup of Allen Iverson versus Ray Allen quickly proved to be entertaining in and of itself as Ray scored 31 points and Iverson had 34 points in Game 1. It was pretty evident that this was going to be a matchup 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 16 points. Just as important, Ray Allen absolutely went off, netting 38 points and hitting seven 3-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 Allen Iverson was not even traveling with the team because of a sore hip. Going into Game 3 without their star player, the 76ers head coach, Larry Brown, clearly instructed his team to “muck it up.” The Sixers team was built around Iverson and his scoring ability. The rest of the roster was comprised of tough defenders that had relatively little offensive talent — “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 an admirable effort, the Sixers could not overcome the Bucks’ talent without Iverson. The Bucks defeated the Sixers that night 80-74, taking a 2-1 lead in the series. 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 came back from his injury 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 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 “La La Land” for the NBA Finals to become a reality.
Game 6 was played in Milwaukee at the Bradley Center and the Bucks were down 3-2 to the 76ers in a potential elimination game. 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.”
Fueling the fire of rumors that there was a conspiracy theory to clear a path for Iverson and the 76ers to go on the NBA finals, was the suspension of the Bucks’ veteran big man Scott Williams. In Game 6, Williams, the “heart and soul” of that Bucks team, was called for a flagrant foul on the NBA’s so-called “golden child” at the time, Allen Iverson. The day after the game, the NBA notified the Bucks that Williams would be suspended for Game 7. A very unfavorable ruling against the Bucks.
Game 7 went on without Scott 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 is I don’t think the Bucks team was ever able to fully recover from that loss. Within a couple of years, the Bucks traded franchise player Ray Allen to the Seattle SuperSonics, “Big Dog” to the Atlanta Hawks, Sam Cassell to the Minnesota Timberwolves, fired head coach George Karl, and general manager Ernie Grunfeld moved on to the Washington Wizards. The Bucks went into rebuild mode.
I really don’t have any interest in debating whether that 76ers playoff series was fixed or not; 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 big “what if?” questions that send my mind spinning. What if the officiating was better in that series? Would the Bucks have beaten the Sixers? Could the Bucks have beaten the Lakers? Would my dad have a championship ring? Would that Bucks core unit have stayed together longer? Would Ray Allen have retired a Buck and have his #34 retired in the rafters? What would Michael Redd’s career have been like if Ray was never traded? What number would Giannis be wearing right now if #34 was retired? So on and so on...
Despite the disappointing conclusion of that 2001 season, I can say, without hesitation, that the years from 1998 until 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 a young man. I was lucky enough to be able to experience the ins and outs of the NBA, learn the game from some of the greatest the game has had to offer, make many lifelong friends, and create memories that now seem more like a dream than reality, memories that will certainly last a lifetime.
Part 5: "Growing up a Buck: Years Later."