2021 NBA Finals

Khris Middleton's mindset is X-factor for Bucks, even if his shot isn't falling

The two-time All-Star has been up-and-down during Milwaukee's run to The Finals, but his effort hasn't wavered.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Khris Middleton (left) and Giannis Antetokounmpo have experienced a lot together in Milwaukee since 2013.

As a shooter, Khris Middleton knows it’s necessary to have a short memory.

Not so short that he forgets the Milwaukee Bucks’ plays or his route to and from the arena, but short enough that he doesn’t dwell on missed shots or some big guy swatting his last attempt into the third row.

Not so short, either, that he can’t recall from one game to the next what a given playoff opponent has done defensively against him early in a series. That’s the only reliable way to adjust and dig into one’s bag of tricks for a Plan B, Plan C or beyond. See, it’s not only head coaches who have to make adjustments in a playoff series.

Middleton’s play through Milwaukee’s 20 playoff games so far, heading into Game 4 of The Finals Wednesday night at Fiserv Forum (9 ET, ABC), has been excellent at times, erratic at others. His stats line overall is solid — 22.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game, better than any full season of his career.

But a scattergram of his scoring and shooting percentages would fill up the page. From 38 points in Game 6 against Brooklyn and again in Game 3 against Atlanta to 11 in Game 2 of these Finals. From 6-of-23 (26.1%) shooting to open both series against the Nets and the Hawks to 11-of-16 (68.8%) in Game 3 against Brooklyn. Nights where Middleton has gone 0-of-9, 0-of-7 and 0-of-5 on 3-point attempts to others where he’s made 5-of-8 or 6-of-12.

Khris Middleton talked with NBA TV after Milwaukee's Game 3 win.

No one said there was going to be math in this story but in terms of standard deviation, Middleton has been on a Tilt-A-Whirl, with head-spinning numbers this way and that. Not unlike his team, frankly. Fourteen of Milwaukee’s 20 postseason games have been decided by double digits. The Bucks are 10-4, which is good, but winning games by 34 and losing by 39 in the playoffs doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence from one night to the next in their fans.

Ditto Middleton.

The swings and the reversals are the reason we see (or, ahem, in some cases write) a “Middleton is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s worthy sidekick” story, only to have it scuttled soon thereafter. And then written again a week or so later. What he is on many nights isn’t want he is every night, a confounding pattern for which a franchise guy like Antetokounmpo would be savaged.

Being a No. 2 allows for more wiggle room, it seems.

Given the highs and lows that can come without warning, it’s probably a necessary thing that Middleton himself maintains a demeanor that rarely changes. Wait, “rarely?” How ‘bout “never?”

The Bucks’ 29-year-old wing is like the old film-school experiment, where the same shot of a person is edited next to shots of an ice cream cone, a sick child or a pile of money. “Look, he’s hungry … look, he’s sad …look, he’s greedy.” Nope. We just project those emotions — his expression never actually budges.

“The things he does, his calm, cool, collected nature, it’s awesome to see him put himself in a position to have the type of series and postseason that he’s had,” teammate Pat Connaughton said after the Bucks eliminated Atlanta, riding Middleton’s 32 points with Antetokounmpo cheering from the sideline, only four days removed from hyperextending his left knee. “Because we all see the hours that he’s put in but for the world to see it, it’s awesome for him.”

Khris Middleton took control during Game 6 vs. Atlanta to help Milwaukee win the East.

Middleton has been this way for a long time. Growing up in Charleston, S.C., he was what his father described as a late bloomer. Colleges closer to home didn’t pursue him, so he went to Texas A&M. After two years, he had played well enough to generate NBA first-round potential, but a torn meniscus in his knee and an Aggies coaching change sent him into the second round, with the Detroit Pistons picking him 39th overall in 2012.

Middleton’s smooth, old-school, not overly athletic style had him behind fellow Pistons rookies Kim English and Kyle Singler. The following summer, he was included in Detroit’s trade to acquire guard Brandon Jennings, going to Milwaukee with Brandon Knight.

Middleton’s work habits and determination have given him more staying power than any of those above. They helped him cope with a serious hamstring rupture in 2016, and build himself — with an assist from the Bucks’ stellar W-L records both years — into an All-Star in 2019 and 2020. It earned him the five-year, $177 million contract in 2019 that has paid him about $5 million a year more than Antetokounmpo the past two seasons. (The Greek Freak’s $228 million extension that kicks in this fall will catch him up.)

Far more placid than his two-time Kia MVP teammate on the court and equally humble off, Middleton did pull back a curtain recently on his approach to his craft. “Just be the best version of myself I can be, the best player,” he said. “I think I’ve put a lot of work in, but every NBA player has. We wouldn’t be here — we wouldn’t be professionals if we didn’t.”

He added: “I’m not going to try to waste my time by just (half-doing) it. I’m going to give it my all. I’m going to work to be the best I can. I may not be the greatest, but I feel like I can be the best version of myself.”

Middleton hasn’t really tried to dissect his ups and downs, or why he can be so cold one night and so hot and in rhythm the next, even if it’s a half or a quarter that swings the outcome. But here’s one breakdown of his 2021 playoff numbers that might be worth watching for the rest of The Finals:

In Games 1 and 2 of the Bucks’ four playoff series, Middleton averaged 18 points on 37.8% shooting (28.8% from three).

In Games 3 and beyond — a total of 12 so far — he has averaged 26 points on 46.3% shooting (37.5% from three). He had 18 points in Game 3 Sunday, but 15 came in the first half to open up opportunities for Antetokounmpo and set up guard Jrue Holiday’s 12-point burst in the third quarter.

What has Middleton learned as each series has progressed?

“Just seeing the different coverages and knowing where I can attack sometimes,” he said, “knowing where I can get to my spots or just drawing a crowd. I can’t really describe some of those games where I just got hot. I just found a rhythm and seemed like I couldn’t miss a shot. But most nights are not like that, so I just have to be patient and let the game come to me.”

Game 4 is coming Wednesday. Middleton’s memory isn’t so short that he’s about to forget that.

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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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