2021 Playoffs: East Semifinal | Nets (2) vs. Bucks (3)

Middleton swaps sidekick status for hero's cape, keeps Bucks' season alive

A two-time All-Star played far bigger than that in Milwaukee's season-saving Game 6 victory over the Nets.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Middleton’s timely two-way play could not have been more needed coming off Milwaukee’s disheartening Game 5 defeat.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the NBA’s tentpole players, with a personality and a particular set of skills that make him a must-see performer.

Antetokounmpo, of course, doesn’t get to watch himself play. But he’s had a VIP ticket the past eight years to witness and admire Milwaukee teammate Khris Middleton’s game. After seeing Middleton come through again and again in the Bucks’ 104-89 victory Thursday over Brooklyn to force Game 7 Saturday (8:30 ET, TNT), Antetokounmpo wasn’t asking for a refund.

He and the other Bucks got their Money’s worth, to play off Middleton’s nickname.

“Those moments, you love those moments,” Antetokounmpo told reporters in the wake of Middleton’s timely, postseason-extending performance: 38 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals, while sinking 11 of 16 shots that included 5-for-8 from 3-point range.

The smooth 29-year-old wing was at his best when Milwaukee needed it most, too. Late in the first half and again late in the third quarter, Middleton got resourceful to fend off a Nets team that, one game earlier, had dismantled a 17-point deficit to catch and pass the Bucks.

Not this time.

“He’s going to make the right play,” Antetokounmpo said. “We know that when he feels good, we’ve got to give him the ball. I’ve said it in the past. We’ve just got to play through him. He’s going to make the right play. He’s never scared of those moments.”

The first stretch of suspense came in the last couple minutes of the second quarter. Brooklyn had whittled what had been a 13-point gap to 53-48, then pressured the Bucks into four missed shots on their next trip downcourt. Finally, with 1:18 left before halftime, Antetokounmpo got into the heart of the Nets defense, then passed back to Middleton behind the arc for the bucket from 25 feet.

Full Focus: Bucks Force a Game 7

Next time down, Antetokounmpo did it again, this time from the left corner, with Middleton stationed in the same spot outside. He hit again. Then the Greek Freak’s sidekick thwarted two Nets chances with a pair of steals in the final 31 seconds.

Just like that, Milwaukee’s lead was back to 11, 59-48, and the home crowd at Fiserv Forum could stay raucous.

It happened again late in the third, the quarter in which Brooklyn seized control of Game 5 by putting up 38 points. This time, the Nets managed only half that, and the Bucks were able to keep up because Middleton got crazy-busy near the end.

The gap again was down to five, 72-67, with the Nets putting together a 12-4 spurt that ran to the 1:27 mark of the quarter. Middleton answered, hitting a jumper from the paint after P.J. Tucker’s offensive rebound. Followed by Middleton’s 10-foot shot from the right baseline. Followed by Middleton’s rebound of Kevin Durant’s floater with 6.1 seconds and fling downcourt to Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo was too far under the rim and missed a layup, but naturally, there was Middleton grabbing it for a putback that beat the buzzer. Crisis averted. Milwaukee’s lead? Back to 11, 78-67.

For someone as publicly mild-mannered as Middleton, he has been the topic of debate among Bucks and NBA fans in recent years. He’s a two-time All-Star who has averaged 20 points per game over the past four seasons and signed a five-year, $177.5 million contract in 2019. But he’s also a player whose status as Antetokounmpo’s most talented teammate brought criticism, that Middleton wasn’t a good enough sidekick to help his double-Kia MVP buddy chase down a ring.

Yet on nights like Thursday, with Middleton hitting bull’s eyes from all over the floor, hitting the boards and making plays at both ends, maybe he wasn’t Milwaukee’s No. 2 after all.

More like 1A.

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Antetokounmpo seemed to like talking about Middleton almost as much as playing with him. “The one thing I’ve noticed with him,”  Giannis said, “once he starts getting vocal and talking to everybody, telling them where to go and his mind is just in the game, you know he’s locked in. And when he’s making shots, you’ve got to give him the ball, set good screens for him, let him go downhill, let him shoot the pocket two… You know when he’s trailing behind you, to find him for the three. Yeah, I just know how to play with him.”

For all the attention paid all season to Brooklyn’s Big Three – even now, with James Harden fighting a tight hamstring and Kyrie Irving missing his second full game with an ankle sprain – the ones who put up 38, 30 and 21 points were named Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday. Those three combined for 89 points on 57 shots, matching Brooklyn’s entire scoring output that required 81 attempts to accomplish.

And while Durant had his historic Game 5, becoming the first in NBA playoff history with 47 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists, Middleton staked out some turf of his own in Game 6. No one else ever managed at least 30 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, five steals and five or more 3-pointers in a postseason game.

Over the series’ past four games, with Milwaukee going 3-1, Middleton has averaged 29.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists. While he made five of his eight 3-pointers, the rest of the Bucks went 2-for-25. (On the bright side, Antetokounmpo went 0-of-0.)

One more highlight of Middleton’s Game 6 performance: Four times he was fouled while shooting 3-pointers, three times in the fourth quarter alone. He netted 14 points out of those opportunities, with two four-point plays and 6-for-6 foul shooting on the other two.

That’s a lot of pressurized free throws, although Middleton rejects the notion.

“I don’t think about any type of pressure at all,” he said. “It’s a basketball game. I know it’s lose or go home, but you have to have fun with it, and those moments are fun when the game’s on the line.”

Middleton even likened it to pick-up ball in the offseason, when guys talk trash and no one’s worried about their won-lost record, their analytics or their brands.

“That’s where I go in my mind is just thinking about summertime and having fun,” Middleton said, “but now it’s just in an official building with people watching.”

They’ll be watching again Saturday thanks in large part to Middleton.

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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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