Jerryd Bayless‘ game-winner in the 2015 first round playoff series against Chicago gave Milwaukee Bucks fans a beacon of hope and a glimpse of the future.
It’s not often that one shot can become a beacon of hope for a franchise and its city.
Trailing 0-3 at home in the 2015 NBA playoff series against the rival Chicago Bulls, on the cusp of an organizational rebrand, and without a playoff series win since the Ray Allen era, a Jerryd Bayless game-winner gave the Milwaukee Bucks just that, though.
I remember the night well.
But despite the 0-3 series hole, the atmosphere in Milwaukee was electric.
Walking down State Street toward the stadium, you could feel a different sort of energy in the air. As you crossed 6th Street and approached the gates, you could see as many Rose and Butler jerseys as Middleton and Parker ones.
This was the I-94 rivalry; the Bulls had battled and bested the Bucks in recent years, but the war had been waging for decades, and the Bucks looked primed to strike back with a young core ready to Own the Future.
Facing elimination, Bucks fans brought a level of intensity not felt in the Bradley Center in quite some time.
It was a stark contrast from the 15-win season just a year earlier.
Now, following a surprisingly successful 41-41 campaign led by new head coach Jason Kidd, the Milwaukee Bucks found themselves thrust into the sixth seed of the 2015 NBA playoffs and a first-round matchup with their greatest rival, the Chicago Bulls.
Meanwhile, the Bulls entered the 2015 playoffs as the third seed with a 50-32 record, led by the young tandem of Jimmy Butler and 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, along with former all-star power forward Pau Gasol.
Realistically, a young Bucks core led by a 23-year-old Khris Middleton and the ragtag group of veterans that accompanied him should have had no shot in a seven-game playoff series against the trio of stars in Chicago.
Trailing 0-3 in the series, that reality seemed to be setting in.
But all of that changed in a tightly contested Game 4 that would end in one of the wildest elimination game finishes in recent years.
A hard-fought affair
The first quarter started off as an intense back-and-forth battle with four lead changes and four ties.
Jimmy Butler started off the game hot, leading all first quarter scoring with nine points. He capped off the quarter with an emphatic block on Bucks guard O.J. Mayo as time expired, preserving a 23-19 Bulls lead.
The Bucks regained some momentum in the second quarter, thanks to some hot three-point shooting from Jared Dudley and O.J. Mayo.
Milwaukee led by as many as 12 points until Butler spearheaded a Bulls 16-4 run in the final three and a half minutes of the half, in which he scored 10 points, capped off by a leaning, banked-in three-pointer as time expired to tie the game at 50-50 going into halftime.
The Bucks, who boasted the league’s second ranked defense in the regular season, had no answers for Butler in the series so far. He was averaging nearly 27 points through the first three games and already had 23 points in the first half of Game 4.
Milwaukee would have to contain Butler in the second half if it wanted any chance of reaching a Game 5.
The third quarter saw eight lead changes and three ties. Milwaukee managed to survive a nine-point third quarter surge by Pau Gasol and held Butler to five points.
A young Giannis Antetokounmpo drained two straight midrange jumpers in the span of a minute to take and extend the lead near the end of the quarter to help the Bucks to a two-point lead entering the fourth.
With one quarter to go, the city of Milwaukee held its collective breath.
A quarter of runs
The Bucks opened up the fourth on a 10-4 run, including five straight points from O.J. Mayo on consecutive possessions.
Mayo buried a sidestep three-pointer off a sweet pump fake that sent Aaron Brooks flying past him and then sank a soft floater over Brooks in transition on the following possession, causing the Bulls to take a full timeout with the Bucks up seven with just over nine minutes to go.
Rose entered the game for Brooks after the Bulls’ timeout. Joakim Noah coaxed in a layup as the shot clock expired on the possession following the timeout, but a few possessions later, Khris Middleton would give the Bucks their biggest lead of the quarter with a cold-blooded three off a Jared Dudley dish.
The Bradley Center erupted following the Middleton triple, and, enjoying an eight-point lead with just under eight minutes to go, Bucks fans could almost taste their first playoff win in five years.
It didn’t take long for Milwaukee’s confidence to dissipate.
Derrick Rose rattled off the Bulls’ next six points, and Jimmy Butler drained an off-balance three-pointer to cut the Bucks lead to 87-84 with 2:38 to go.
O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose would trade threes on back-to-back possessions, but the heart of every Bucks fan sunk on the next Bulls possession when Pau Gasol sank a tough layup and was sent to the line for a potential and-one opportunity to tie the game at 90 with 38 seconds to go.
He converted the free throw, and the Bucks called a full timeout.
A shift in momentum
The Milwaukee faithful were in disbelief. They had just watched in horror as their lead evaporated before their eyes with Chicago now possessing a very real chance to complete the series sweep. The momentum had swung for perhaps the final time in Chicago’s favor.
The Bradley Center now thundered with the chants of Bulls fans smelling the blood in the water.
The section where I stood with my dad was enveloped by a sea of Bulls red.
For the entire game, Bucks and Bulls fans had battled to establish dominance in the arena, with Bulls fans attempting to drown out the cheers of Bucks fans with those of their own all night long.
When Gasol’s free throw found the bottom of the net, Bulls fans erupted.
It felt like the final straw to break Milwaukee’s back.
But despite the apparent shift in momentum against the Bucks, something special happened during that timeout that still gives me goosebumps to this day.
In that moment of doubt, from out of the furor of Bulls fans, one word emerged from the chaos:
“MILWAUKEE! MILWAUKEE! MILWAUKEE!”
Suddenly, the Bradley Center boomed with the voices of thousands of Bucks fans, unifying as one to completely drown out any attempt Bulls fans made to silence them.
This was our city, and no one was going to dominate our home court but us.
The air was charged in the Bradley Center as both teams retook the floor.
Jerryd Bayless missed a layup on the play out of the timeout, giving the Bulls an opportunity for the final shot with the game tied at 90 and the shot clock dark.
Rose let the game clock wind down and watched his teammates clear out for him, giving him room to operate.
He squared up against Bayless with ten to go, made his move with five to go, but got cut off by Bayless’ stout defense.
He tried dribbling back toward the top of the key but got the ball stripped away by Khris Middleton with three seconds remaining.
Middleton dribbled up the court and heaved up a three-quarters court prayer with less than a second left when the play was blown dead.
Milwaukee had called a timeout before he got the shot off. The game clock was reset to 1.3 seconds.
The momentum had shifted once again. And the Bradley Center was in an uproar.
Now with just over a second remaining, the Bucks had the chance to win the game in regulation.
Jared Dudley handled the inbound near the three-point arc following the timeout.
“MILWAUKEE” chants, again, echoed throughout the arena.
The official handed Dudley the ball, setting the Bucks’ play in motion. Middleton acted as a decoy while Bayless ran towards the ball on the baseline with Rose guarding him, then cut back sharply toward the basket.
Dudley lofted up a perfect over-the-shoulder dime to Bayless under the hoop, and the rest is history:
“Dudley, up top… oh, Bayless got a clean tip — MILWAUKEE WINS IT!”
And in one play, one pass, one shot, Milwaukee caught a glimpse of the future they had been waiting for.
A new hope
It had been five years since their last playoff win; 14 since their last series win.
Now, with a young core of Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Parker, Bucks fans finally had a future to look forward to.
And in that moment, as the confetti flew through the air in the Bradley Center and the Bucks bench rushed the court, it felt like anything was possible for this team.
In the three years since, a lot has changed for both franchises.
While the Bulls went on to win the series in six games, they would fail to reach the playoffs the following year.
Rose, Butler, and Gasol have all left Chicago, and the Bulls have not approached relevance since, most recently finishing 13th in the Eastern Conference last season.
Meanwhile, the Bucks have still not won a playoff series; however, Giannis Antetokounmpo has grown into a top player in the NBA, and the Bucks took a Celtics team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals to seven games in the playoffs last year.
Now with a new coach at the helm, they will be looking to become a major Eastern Conference playoff contender in 2018-19.
Though the Bucks have had an up-and-down couple of seasons since the Bayless game-winner, that game gave Milwaukee hope when it needed it most.
The Bucks unveiled their new uniforms and colors that offseason and held their Inaugural Bucks Block Party later that summer. Both the rebrand and block party were met with tremendous community support.
It was clear that the fan base was invigorated and optimistic for a fresh start, and Game 4 was the new beginning they had waited for.