Back in the summer of 2001, I was working as a server at my mom’s food stall in Makati. The lunch rush was usually busy but the mornings and afternoons were pretty light. To pass time, I found ways to get updated on the ongoing NBA playoffs which I couldn’t watch on TV.
There were no live updates on Twitter or boxscores from the NBA App that I could follow. So, I tried to pick up as many tidbits as I could from people who worked in the building who talked about the games while in line, from fellow servers who got to watch the games in the staff room during their break, and from the bank tellers who would give me updates when I deposited the day’s earnings.
I never asked for updates on the West matchups because the Lakers were steamrolling through everyone. The East bracket was far more interesting. Both semifinals series went the full seven games with players like Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, and Baron Davis all raising their games to another level.
One team that I followed closely was the Milwaukee Bucks. Unlike all the other teams back then led by one superstar, the Bucks had three All-Star caliber players on their roster. That was something unique at that time. In the early 2000s, teams were constructed with one franchise player surrounded by several reliable role players. The Bucks were different. They were led by Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson Jr., and Sam Cassell.
Expectations for that team were high. After all, previous Big 3s that were formed all ended up winning championships. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Dennis Johnson, champions. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy, also champions. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman, dominant champs.
As with everything in the early 2000s, it all started with the big man. The Bucks had Robinson Jr. The Big Dog was the one clear advantage the Bucks had over the field. In 2001, he was entering his prime while the rest of the big men in the East were all getting older. In the East semifinals that year, he was pretty much the best big man left.
Also, unlike the other big men in the East who were tied to the paint, Robinson Jr. could do more than post up. He had a sweet stroke with a high release, allowing him to fire midrange jumpers over the outstretched hands of his defenders. He was one of the few big men of that era who could step out to the 3-point line and hit the outside jumper confidently. Robinson Jr. was also athletic and strong. He could put it on the floor and attack the hoop, bullying smaller defenders.
He was good. But not at the level of Shaq, Kevin Garnett, or Tim Duncan.
While Robinson was the focal point of the offense, Allen was clearly the team’s best player. Robinson admits as much.
Back then, Allen was already one of the league’s best shooters. And while most people know him as a spot-up shooter, the Milwaukee version of Allen was a smooth scorer - inside and out. He could take and make jumpers from anywhere on the court. Allen wasted no moves on offense. He had an efficient handle and sublime footwork that allowed him to get separation from his defenders or stop on a dime for the pull-up J.
Allen didn’t just operate on the perimeter. He was a talented finisher who could lay it in from either side of the basket. But most of the time, he just straight-up dunked over defenders. He was called “Jesus” because he would baptize guys at the rim.
Allen was good. But he wasn’t as good as Kobe or Vince Carter back then.
"We had a bunch of killers. We had a bunch of scorers and everybody played their role."— The Players' Tribune (@PlayersTribune) July 30, 2021
Glenn Robinson remembers his time with the @Bucks and heavy hitters like Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, Tim Thomas and more.
Watch this episode of #Knuckleheads now. https://t.co/ZyWXxhSVbO pic.twitter.com/f4bpM5dY5r
While Robinson Jr. and Allen did the heavy lifting, Cassell put the finishing touches in tight games.
Cassell was the most experienced player of the Bucks. He was a two-time champion brought in to teach a young team how to win. He did just that. In 2000-2001, his first full season as Milwaukee’s starting point guard, the team won 52 games and finished second in the East, up from 42 games in the previous season.
Cassell wasn’t the most athletic or talented point guard. Instead, he used his basketball IQ and veteran guile to get to his spots on the floor. At 6’3” and 185 pounds, he could back down other point guards and create from the post similar to how a power forward would. That made him an ideal crunch-time scorer because once he got position on the wings, the entire team could clear out and allow him to go to work.
Sam Cassell was good. But he wasn’t elite like Iverson, Jason Kidd, or John Stockton.
SAM. I. AM.— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) March 4, 2020
On This Day In 2001: Sam Cassell drops a career high 40 points in the double OT victory over Chicago pic.twitter.com/MJ87ydxTC2
These three players all alternated between getting buckets and creating for each other and their other teammates. All three of them were multi-faceted players who led the Bucks in points and assists. Allen and Cassell could switch between handling the rock and running through screens playing off the ball. Cassell and Robinson Jr. could both score from the block and pass out to cutters and shooters.
As talented as Milwaukee’s Big 3 was, they just weren’t ever going to be the best players in a series. That was the Bucks’ downfall against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Allen Iverson took over when the Sixers needed the win, especially in Game 7 where he erupted for 44 points to lead his team to the NBA Finals. The Bucks got good games from their Big 3 in the clinching game. But not at the level that Iverson was playing.
The Bucks just didn’t have a player like AI, Shaq, or Kobe. They didn’t have someone like Larry, Magic, or MJ - a player who even playing alongside other All-Stars could dominate and be the best player on the floor on any given night.
The Bucks were good with Allen, Robinson Jr., and Cassell. Unfortunately, they weren’t good enough to be a champion team.
I’ll never forget the summer of 2001. Boredom turned me into an NBA junkie, trying to get my hit from whatever source I could get it from. The Bucks were my drug of choice back then. They were good enough to at least make my summer job a little bit more interesting.