ORLANDO, Fla. -- In normal times, under a normal playoff schedule, today would be a travel day back to Milwaukee followed by another day’s rest. That’s 48-plus hours to find a near-miracle cure for a superstar and season that need to make it to next week.
But the sneaky and largely unnoticed reality in this NBA restart is how there’s no rest for the weary or injured. The playoffs are engaged every other day, which means Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t simply rub some dirt on his creaky right ankle and expect to be a savior.
That’s the bad news for the No. 1 seed in the East, which winced on Sunday when it saw Antetokounmpo collapse and heard him scream when he re-injured that ankle. The newly crownd Kia Defensive Player of the Year and Kia MVP finalist limped off the floor, never to return to Game 4 against the Heat, maybe never again in this series or this season.
At least the Bucks didn’t limp right along with him. That’s the good news. The only thing more painful than Giannis’ ankle would’ve been the agony of getting swept by Miami. And so their fate received an extension; not the extension the Bucks are praying for the most -- that would be a contract signed by Giannis -- but this will do.
They’ll see a Game 5 because forward Khris Middleton delivered like a franchise player instead of a designated shotgun rider in Milwaukee's 118-115 overtime win. He hit a massive and contested 3-pointer with six seconds left in overtime, a moment of truth usually reserved for Giannis. So give Middleton that. Neither the situation nor the presence of Jimmy Butler’s defense made him shiver.
“That’s Khris,” said Bucks center Brook Lopez. “He was in a rhythm. They did come and double him but getting that shot off, that was a great job by him. He was constantly in control with what’s going on. I can’t say I was surprised by it. That’s the way our team is built. We always come together in moments like that.”
Of course, the cynic might advise Milwaukee fans to get used to the sight of Middleton as No. 1 option. Since no team has ever rallied from a 3-0 hole to win a series, the odds are firmly against the Bucks to pull that off with or without Giannis, who’s sure to be gimpy even if he makes an unexpected recovery for Tuesday’s game.
A second-round ouster courtesy of Miami, after entering the playoffs with the best record for the second straight year, will either plant the seed for Giannis’ departure from Milwaukee or at least get the outside chatter started. If there wasn’t any doubt that Giannis will sign a max extension with the Bucks in a few months, or before becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer, then why are rival teams keeping salary cap space open longer than 7-Eleven?
Interestingly, one such team is Miami. The only heavy contract on the Heat’s cap will belong to Butler, though Antetokounmpo's potential free agency could coincide with that of current Heat players including Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson. Another serious threat is Dallas because Luka Doncic will still be on his rookie deal and the only big contract will belong to Kristaps Porzingis.
Those and other teams (Lakers, Raptors, etc.) will ask Giannis one question: Are your teammates in Milwaukee superior to the teammates you could have here?
OK, make that two questions: How many championships do you own?
Assuming this year’s chance is already blown, the Bucks will be under intense pressure to win next year or else, which presents a problem. Not only could current contenders remain intact, but Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will suit up for Brooklyn and the Golden State Warriors will be healthy in the Western Conference.
Essentially, the competition for the 2021 championship will be as intense as the competition for Giannis.
If [Antetokounmpo] plays we’ll have to have his back for the next game, if not we’ll just have to keep playing hard in order to keep playing, period."
But that’s talk for another day. The Bucks are simply thrilled they’ll live to see another game. Middleton scored 36 points while lasting 48 very tough minutes, most of those as a solo star. Until then, Middleton once again took a back seat in the game to Giannis, who started strongly by scoring 19 of the Bucks’ first 30 points before toppling in pain. Then Middleton scored 21 points in the third quarter and suddenly it was a contest.
Middleton averaged a career high 20.9 points during the regular season. He is the forgotten All-Star, at least on the Bucks. He benefits often from open looks created by the double-teams on Giannis. Yet that shouldn’t be a lasting image of him. Middleton can create his own shot, and did so when he had no other choice once Giannis left. Middleton is a trademark shooter, yet is sneaky solid off the dribble. He showed that in the second half and in OT.
“I just wanted to get the ball in certain positions,” he said. “I thought the guys did a good job of passing it and finding me.”
Giannis never returned to the bench after leaving, though he did greet his teammates one-by-one in the locker room afterward.
“We know he was out there laying it on the line for us before he got hurt,” said Middleton. “His ankle was in bad shape coming into the game. But right from the start, in the first and second quarter before he got hurt, he was giving it his all. He’s a complete teammate. Even though he won an MVP and it should be back to back, he’s still a great teammate. We had to have his back tonight. If he plays we’ll have to have his back for the next game, if not we’ll just have to keep playing hard in order to keep playing, period.”
The Bucks realize this is a Herculean task, not necessarily because the Heat are loaded with stars, but because Miami’s defense is swarming and intense and history is against Milwaukee.
And the format here at Disney doesn’t help.
“It’s been tough playing every other day,” Middleton said.
Giannis Antetokounmpo would love to discover the feeling come Tuesday.
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