2021 Playoffs: East Final | Bucks (3) vs. Hawks (5)

Opening arrives for help, and Khris Middleton sizzles in Game 3 win

Atlanta makes a run, but Khris Middleton catches fire and ties a career-high with 38 points to help Bucks claim the series lead.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

The Bucks' Khris Middleton catches fire and scores 20 points in the fourth quarter finishing to power a Game 3 win.

Players in this league who get categorized as their team’s “No. 2” learn how to play off the resident superstar. They defer on and off the court. They find ways to thrive, since they’re rarely the primary focus of the opponents’ defense. And they never quite feel the burden of carrying a franchise where it wants to go, or the judgment that comes if it doesn’t get there.

Do that well enough, and an NBA second banana can get both rich and famous. Just not as rich or as famous as the No. 1 guy.

There are times, though, when somebody such as Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton has to shift from cashing in on the opportunism created nightly around teammate and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and take a more assertive role.

The final quarter of the Bucks’ 113-102 victory over Atlanta in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals was one of those times.

While the NBA world, a bunch of folks in the stands at State Farm Arena and maybe some of the Hawks too were anticipating Antetokounmpo to take over — or fail in an effort to — down the stretch Sunday, Middleton didn’t have that luxury.

Antetokounmpo sat out the first two minutes of the fourth quarter. Atlanta was busy scoring 10 of the first 15 points in that period. Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari were giving the Hawks a boost off the bench, Kevin Huerter was playing like a triple-double threat and defensive disruptor.

And then when Antetokounmpo did re-enter, a rookie named Onyeka Okongwu showed absolutely no fear of the Bucks star. He finished an alley-oop, tied up “The Greek Freak” for a jump ball, then — after Antetkounmpo got whistled for traveling — dropped in an 8-foot floater that had Atlanta up 95-88 with 7:32 left.

So who took over for Milwaukee at that point? Who wanted the ball and did all sorts of marvelous things with it, flipping the game and quite possibly the series? Right, the second-in-command.

Game Recap: Bucks 113, Hawks 102

In a span of barely four minutes, from 7:12 down to 3:08, Middleton sank three 3-pointers, a pair of mid-range jumpers and one driving layup to put his team up 107-100. He had 15 of the Bucks’ points in that 19-5 stretch, with Antetokounmpo and Pat Connaughton chipping in one bucket each. The fourth quarter scoresheet overall looked like this: Middleton 20 points, Atlanta 17, the other six Bucks who played 10.

“Freaking unbelievable,” Antetokounmpo said. “Carried the team at the end. And just being able to — he turned the ball over like two times, and after that he was locked in. He was like, ‘Pass me the ball,’ and we gave him the ball.

“I turned to Pat, I said, ‘As long as we know when to set screens for him, we know when he wants the ball’ and that was the moment, we were like, ‘Get the hell out of the way. Give him the ball.’”

Said coach Mike Budenholzer: “Just being around him a lot, he starts to see it go in, he starts to feel good, he gets in a rhythm, he can score different ways. He and Giannis in a two-man game, it’s a tough choice. So huge fourth quarter … yeah, just glad he’s on our side.”

Middleton didn’t just finish with 38 points, tying his career playoff high (think Game 6 vs. Brooklyn last week) , along with 11 rebounds and seven assists while shooting 15-of-26 (6-of-12 on threes). He became the first Bucks player to score 20 points in the fourth quarter of a playoff game in the past 25 postseasons.

Middleton's hot fourth quarter seals it for Milwaukee, capping a career-best performance.

Which, of course, meant he was seizing this particular moment, under the brightest lights, to pound his chest and show everybody how good he really is. Right?

“Nah, I don’t’ think about the stage at all,” Middleton said. “I just try to stay in the moment, stay in the possession, not worry about it. The playoffs or the regular season or a must-win or a preseason game, [I] try to play everything out the same way.”

Questions to Middleton, to his coach and to his teammates kept coming, honing in on his unheralded arrival as the No. 39 pick overall out of Texas A&M in 2012 and, after one season in Detroit, his eight years as Antetokounmpo’s sidekick and friend. Middleton’s two trips to the All-Star Game and the five-year, $177 million contract he signed in July 2019 owed plenty to his buddy’s ascension as one of the league’s cornerstone players.

Then again, Antetokounmpo’s double MVPs and the $228 million extension he signed before this season might not have been fully realized without Middleton as a helper and confidant along the way.

Neither of them seems to care much who does what when. So long as it gets done.

“It feels good, I will say that,” Middleton said of stepping up when the Bucks needed him. “But our team is so unselfish, whoever has it going, that ball goes to him. Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s Giannis, sometimes it’s Jrue [Holiday]. We all have a great feel about who has it going, who has the best matchup and who can create the best looks. When it’s my turn to have it, I’m thinking I’ve got to get the best shot up for everybody.”

Ultimate Highlight: Bucks take Game 3

After falling behind early, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton deliver to get Milwaukee past Atlanta in Game 3.

Middleton did it in those final 12 minutes while saddled with four fouls, too. He looked agitated after several of the whistles and had to check out after the fourth came late in the third. Then he took his aggravation out on Atlanta.

“I definitely disagreed with the foul calls that I got,” Middleton said. “But they call fouls, you’ve got to move on from it.”

It helped Milwaukee, certainly, that Hawks dynamo Trae Young stepped on a referee’s foot — that’s worse than their whistles — and turned his ankle. The injury sent him to the locker room for a spell, and limited his mobility and explosiveness. What ordinarily might have been his time down the stretch wasn’t — Young scored just three of his 35 points in the fourth, shooting only 1-for-4 — and Middleton stepped into the void.

It was enough to get former NBA big man-turned-chinwagger extraordinaire Kendrick Perkins rolling. “I don’t think I need to repeat myself, but I will anyway damnit!” Perkins wrote on Twitter. “Middleton is the Batman, Giannis is the Robin, and that’s OK! 38 points, 20 in the 4th.. all timely buckets! Carry the hell on…”

Batman and Robin weren’t interested in what that joker had to Tweet though.

“If he wants the ball he gets it,” Antetokounmpo said. “He was knocking down shots. It doesn’t even matter who’s the first [option]. We play basketball. We try to win games. If Bobby [Portis, Bucks reserve] comes in to help us win a game, I’ll take that any way … I have the whole day to be, y’know, the guy.  I don’t care about the end of the game, the fourth quarter.

“If Khris asks for the ball, you’d better give him the ball.”

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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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