2020 Playoffs: First Round | Bucks vs. Magic

Bucks' success hinges on convincing Khris Middleton to force his offense

All-Star swingman scored 16 points in 5 1/2 fourth-quarter minutes to shake slump

Stop me if you’ve read this one before, but…

Actually, you’re too late. It’s been written, edited and posted, like it or not, regardless of any potential redundancy. As long as Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton keeps having to be reminded that he can and should shoot the basketball whenever he’s on a court, we’ll keep writing this.

And you’ll keep getting dragged along until Middleton’s next refresher course.

> Game 5: Bucks vs. Magic; Wednesday, 4 ET on NBA TV

The most recent session came Monday afternoon at The Field House on the Walt Disney World campus, where the Bucks battled the Orlando Magic in Game 4 of their first-round series. For 15 quarters — the first three games, plus three-fourths of this 121-106 victory — Middleton largely had receded. His numbers were unbecoming of a two-time NBA All-Star: 11.0 points, 32% shooting overall, 29% on 3-pointers, even 57% on his modest seven free throws.

This, from a guy who flirted with rare “50-40-90” status (Middleton would have had it if three more of his 947 field goal attempts had hit, boosting him from 49.7% to 50% overall.)

Sure, Middleton was playing hard and even contributing in ways other from scoring — though referring to his Game 2 performance (1-for-8, 2 points) as “great” sounded silly. But the way this Milwaukee thing works is A-B-C: Giannis Antetokounmpo attacks in the lane, shooters around the arc draw out defenders to open space for the Greek Freak and Middleton serves as the release valve, capable of initiating runs, salvaging possessions or anything in between, from anywhere in the offensive zone.

Middleton is not a luxury. He is a necessity if the Bucks are going to hit their opponents hard enough to reach and maybe win The Finals later next month.

So that’s what they told their drifting teammate after three quarters, by which time Milwaukee’s nine-point lead had dwindled to 84-81.

“I told him when we came off, ‘Shoot the ball. Till your arms fall off. Just keep being aggressive,’ ” Antetokounmpo said. “ ‘Just shoot it, every time.’

“We need him to do that. This game, the next game, also as long as the playoffs go.”

To that point, Middleton had missed eight of his nine shots, including three of his four 3-pointers. He had eight rebounds and three assists, so he was contributing. But with just three points, he was getting outscored by 17 of the other 19 players who had broken a sweat to that point.

“That’s been something [they] have been telling me since Day One here in Milwaukee,” Middleton said. “No matter how I’ve been shooting, I’ve got to keep shooting. That’s the only way it’s going to go in.”

Funny how that works.

Middleton nailed a 3-pointer on a feed from Antetokounmpo that made it 92-83. Then a jumper, followed by two more 3-pointers. He scored 16 of the Bucks’ 18 points in a span of 5:37, even allowing Antetokounmpo to grab a couple minutes on the bench. His step-back jumper over Evan Fournier made it 107-97, a lead Milwaukee was able to manage to the end.

Thanks to those 12 minutes — Middleton added two late free throws — his final line of 21 points, 10 rebounds and four 3-pointers was more appropriate for his team’s second-best player.

“We’ve been saying it before each game, and between games,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “‘We think it’s just a matter of time for him.’

“For his stick-to-itiveness and for him to just stay the course, keep playing, keep competing … His mindset’s been good.”

Fine. But this isn’t Middleton’s first rodeo, bubble or not. There have been scoring and shooting shrinkage before. His standard-deviation problem really was glaring in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals against Toronto, when he put up games of 11, 12, 9, 30, six and 14 points.

There’s times where I think I have to force the issue, and I think that’s what they wanted me to do.”

Khris Middleton

The Bucks dropped the last four, abruptly beginning their summer, with Middleton limited by the Raptors to 13.7 points on 41% shooting. In the three series he played prior to that, 16 games across 2018 and 2019, he averaged 21.6 points on 50.4% shooting.

Still, when you’re a 29-year-old, eight seasons into an NBA career, with two All-Star appearances made possible by coaches who are quite clear in what they value about Middleton, should it really take another pep talk on the fly, in between quarters of a playoff game, to snap him back?

The five-year, $177 million contract extension he signed last summer should be screaming “Shoot! Again!” at him from morning till night.

“At times I think I’m unselfish,” Middleton said after Milwaukee went up 3-1, with a chance to eliminate the Magic Wednesday (4 ET, NBA TV). “And then there’s times where I think I have to force the issue, and I think that’s what they wanted me to do. Or at least start doing.”

Better yet for the Bucks, keep doing it.

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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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