The NBA Finals haven’t even tipped off, and already the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns have made history. The stakes are high for both teams in this NBA Playoffs matchup. The Bucks haven’t won a title since 1971 and are making their first appearance in the Finals since 1974. Phoenix, meanwhile, made its last trip to the Finals in 1993 and is still looking for that elusive first championship.
Milwaukee and the Suns each have been around for more than a half-century in the NBA. It is their history that links them in a way no two Finals opponents have ever been.
The matchup between the Suns and Bucks has been very close over the years, with some surprising results of late.
The Phoenix Suns own the regular-season advantage over the Milwaukee Bucks
The Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns have met 146 times in the regular season during their tenures in the NBA. The Suns have a 75–71 edge in that series, thanks to a surprising surge of late.
Over the last three seasons, Phoenix is 5–1 against Milwaukee. That’s despite their records over that span being vastly different. The Bucks’ record in the regular season the last three seasons is 162–65. They’ve made the playoffs each year and were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference in 2019 and 2020.
The Suns, on the other hand, obviously made the playoffs this season. But even with their 51–21 record this season, Phoenix is just 104–123 and is two years removed from back-to-back years with more than 60 losses. This year marks the Suns’ first appearance in the playoffs since 2010.
The Bucks and Suns have met once before in the playoffs. In 1978, Milwaukee upset No. 3-seeded Phoenix in the Western Conference first round with a two-game sweep. That was what longtime NBA fans call “the before time,” as in before the NBA discovered geography.
It’s been a reasonably balanced rivalry over the years. The Bucks won 10 straight games from Feb. 23, 1969, through Nov. 8, 1970; Phoenix ran together 11 wins in a row from March 31, 1989, through March 29, 1996. But the teams share a common bond that is unique in NBA history.
The Bucks and Suns are the first teams from the same expansion year to meet in the NBA Finals
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of explosive growth for the NBA. From 1966–70, the league expanded from nine teams at the end of 1965–66 to 17 by the 1970–71 campaign.
The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns both joined the NBA for the 1968–69 season. Milwaukee was terrible that first year, going 27–55. Phoenix was worse at 16–66. As the last-place finishers in their respective divisions, the Bucks won a fateful coin flip for the first pick in the 1969 NBA draft. The Bucks won and selected Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. The Suns lost and picked Neal Walk, just behind Kareem on that list at No. 608. Yeah, missed it by that much.
The Milwaukee and Phoenix franchises will now share another link. They are the first teams from the same expansion class to meet in the NBA Finals. The Bucks were also involved in a historical connection between expansion franchises. When Milwaukee met the Baltimore Bullets in the 1971 NBA Finals, it was the first time two expansion teams played for the championship.
Highs and lows across 53 years for both the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns
Besides having the only championship of the two teams, the Milwaukee Bucks have reached the postseason 33 times, compared to just 30 for the Phoenix Suns. However, Phoenix’s record is 2,271-2,008, a .531 winning percentage. Milwaukee has a .521 mark at 2,231–2,048. A difference of 40 wins over 53 years? That’s pretty close.
Even this season is close. The Suns swept the two meetings this year. Both wins were by one point, and the game in Milwaukee went to overtime. There’s even one player already guaranteed to get a ring out of this series regardless of the outcome. Torrey Craig signed with Milwaukee as a free agent in November 2020. In March 2021, Craig went to the Suns for cash and a trade exception.
There is another truth that is regardless of the outcome. Someone in this series will break a long drought. For the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s 50 years since their last title. The Phoenix Suns have been chasing their first for 53 years.