Playoffs 2019 East Finals: Bucks (1) vs. Raptors (2)

Time is now for Bledsoe, Middleton to find their games

Milwaukee backcourt crucial to regular-season success, but playoff struggles eclipsing effort

TORONTO – Yes, Giannis Antetokounmpo had an uncharacteristically ineffective game against Toronto on Sunday. Everybody saw it, and everybody expects the Milwaukee Bucks’ star to fire back more assertively in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena.

And yes, the Bucks have gotten tremendous mileage out of their role players and reserves, guys such as Malcolm Brogdon, George Hill and Ersan Ilaysova, flexing a depth that at times has surprised even them in running up a 10-2 postseason record to this point.

Meanwhile, critics tiptoe around Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe as if they’re furniture in the locker room. A towel bin here, a water cooler over there, cut slack for performances that haven’t been worthy of their status – both current and future – through three games of this best-of-seven series.

It wasn’t just that Middleton and Bledsoe, Milwaukee’s starting backcourt these days, sputtered offensively in the 118-112 double-overtime loss Sunday. Each missed 13 of his 16 shots, scoring a total of just 20 points – about half what you might expect, given the 78 combined minutes they logged.

Fact is, neither of them has shot or scored in the series they way they need to, either to push the Bucks closer to a dream Finals opportunity or to demonstrate that this memorable spring can be anything more than a one-off.

Scan down Milwaukee’s stats sheet through three games and, oh, there they are: Middleton (10.7) ranks sixth in points per game, Bledsoe seventh (9.3). They’re both worse than that if you factor in court time; those two have logged more minutes than all but Antetokounmpo and, in Bledsoe’s case, Brook Lopez.

Oh, and there’s this: Middleton is shooting 33.3 percent in the three games; Bledsoe, 23.7. On 3-pointers, it’s 26.7 and 11.8, respectively.

While Antetokounmpo’s struggles and flaws come under the spotlight whenever they occur – and particularly in defeat – the failures of the team’s Other All-Star and Almost All-Star pass almost under critics’ radar.

No longer. If Middleton and Bledsoe are good enough to merit the above labels, which they carried through the 2018-19 regular season, one or both needs to break out a game-altering offensive performance. More than that, if both are to be considered essential pieces of a Bucks core that wants to compete at this level again and again, they need to prove it.

When Mike Budenholzer talked with reporters before his team’s meeting and film breakdown Monday, he reminded everyone of the symbiotic relationship between his primary star and his secondary stars, as it plays out against Toronto’s defensive scheming and swarming.

Antetokounmpo’s rough night trying to score (5-of-16, 2-of-7 from the foul line) did include seven assists, eight turnovers and a handful more passes that fizzled when the other Buck’s shot missed.

“We’ve probably got to play a little better around him to make it harder for them to do that,” Budenholzer said. “Y’know, when everybody’s playing well, then Giannis plays well.”

That doesn’t mean Antetokounmpo rides any teammates’ shirttails. It means, like most of the NBA’s elite stars committed to winning, he instinctively tries to make the smart basketball play. When confronted with a double-team of defenders or a wall of bodies between him and his assault on the rim, Antetokounmpo naturally and reflexively looks to find an open teammate.

The architecture of the Bucks is such that any number of his teammates, when open, can handle offensive responsibilities. That means hoisting a quality shot, often from behind the 3-point line, for several of the role players. But with Middleton and Bledsoe, it’s supposed to mean facilitating what’s left in the shot clock, making good reads of their own, sometimes creating their scoring chances out of thin air.

It hasn’t happened this series.

Middleton’s situation is complicated by his defensive assignment guarding Raptors star Kawhi Leonard. He has been sharing more of the duties with Brogdon as the series goes on, but it’s demanding duty for both. The work is nonstop, beginning as soon as Toronto gets the ball and lasting until the possession ends. Again and again and again. Middleton tries to deny Leonard his touches, then rides the All-NBA scorer’s right hand in hopes of forcing something awkward or undesirable.

Asked Monday how one goes about simply “stopping” Leonard, Middleton seemed tempted to laugh.

“Everybody’s been asking me that question all series. You can’t,” he said. “He’s going to have the ball in his hands the whole possession most of the possessions. He’s going to force his way into the paint. He’s going to force his way to his spots. He’s going to shoot contested shots with one, two, sometimes three or four guys on him. He’s going to hit some, he’s going to miss some.”

Leonard is averaging 32.7 points in the series, 32.0 points in Toronto’s postseason. He has shot 44.9 percent against the Bucks, 52.0 percent in the playoffs if you factor in earlier foes Indiana and Philadelphia.

I don’t think my defense has affected my offense at all. I’ve just got to hit shots, and I’ll be ready.

Bucks guard Khris Middleton

Much was made in Game 3 of Leonard’s deployment on Antetokounmpo. He is, after all, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. That level of focused attention played a role in the Bucks star’s off night, and yet Leonard also managed to score 36 points to carry the Raptors, 19 of them in the extended game’s final 22 minutes.

“He wasn’t on him the whole night,” Middleton said. “They switched the matchups, like I said, to keep fresh bodies on [Giannis], to keep fresh bodies on other people. They trapped him also. So it’s not like he was playing 1-on-1 defense against Giannis. Everybody knows, just like Kawhi, you’ve got to guard him with the whole team.”

So there goes the theory that Middleton’s energy for offense has been sapped by his obligations on defense. It’s an easy out, but one that Middleton himself did not buy.

“Not at all,” he said. “I don’t think my defense has affected my offense at all. They’ve just forced me to take tough shots and trapped me a lot of times. … I’ve just got to hit shots, and I’ll be ready.”

Bledsoe has been unreliable offensively since the playoffs began. And once he summitted the personal hump of facing and defeating Boston – the sturdy point guard felt embarrassed after last year’s first-round loss against the Celtics – there has been no reserve fire or proficiency kicking in.

Budenholzer and his teammates have praised Bledsoe’s defense all season, including these three series. But his shooting has been a liability; the Raptors are all but begging him to launch open 3-pointers. He has made only 14-of-60 this postseason and just 2-of-17 vs. Toronto.

It’s understandable Budenholzer looked more comfortable with Brogdon and Hill as his backcourt late in Game 3.

“George is playing with a lot of aggressiveness,” the coach said. “When Bled does those things, that’s when he’s at his best. … I think Bled will be better in Game 4.”

One of them needs to be. These are the teammates who will be judged as either good enough or not when Antetokounmpo’s future whereabouts are determined. If so, the young star who seems certain to be one of the league’s top two or three talents for years to come might be able to stay – and win – in Milwaukee. If not? The suitors will never shut up.

Already, some Bucks and NBA fans have wondered if the four-year, $70 million contract extension Bledsoe signed late in the season might better have been reserved for Brogdon, who will be a restricted free agent come July.

As for Middleton, he’ll hit free agency with tremendous pressure on the Bucks to outbid other teams. He and Antetokounmpo are fast friends, and he was an All-Star, even if his reserve selection by the East coaches probably owed more to Milwaukee’s record than to Middleton’s individual work.

His current body of work – right here, right now – needs some sprucing up. And Middleton might do well to heed his own words, when he was lauding Leonard’s ability to defend and score, to dominate at both ends.

“I keep saying this over and over: He’s a great player,” Middleton said. “You can’t stop great players. You can only make it tough on them.”

An affirmation seems in order, frankly.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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