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

Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton find themselves in the 4th, send Bucks to conference finals

Struggling through three quarters, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton recover just in time to give Bucks boost they need to win.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Jrue Holiday, struggling throughout the series against Brooklyn, came up clutch again and again in the closing minutes of Game 7.

Kids grow up dreaming about playing in a Game 7, whether they’re destined for the NBA or not.

None of them ever dream about messing up, though. Not about having a dismal performance on elimination night and, stuck with the smell regardless of shower or soap, living with it all the way to next season.

That’s what Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton faced through three quarters of the Bucks’ final game against the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday at Barclays Center. Counted on as secondary or sometimes even primary scorers to help out teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton were misfiring from whatever spots they staked out.

Combining to miss 26-of-32 shots, including 9-of-10 3-pointers, is the stuff of nightmares, not dreams. Particularly when there’s no Game 8.

Fortunately for both Milwaukee veterans, there weren’t just 12 minutes left to flip the script. There were 17, which gave Holiday and Middleton the time they needed to hit some shots and help in a half dozen other ways to the Bucks’ 115-111 overtime victory as Milwaukee advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.

Game Recap: Bucks 115, Nets 111

“I’ve been in this league long enough to know that sometimes you’re going to hit shots, sometimes you’re not, sometimes the game’s not going to go your way,” Holiday said. “You can’t be timid, especially in a Game 7.

“I feel like my teammates trust in me to take those shots and knock ‘em down. So I really have to be confident and know that if I’m doing the right things … they’re going to end up falling.”

Middleton has that shooter’s swagger too, the belief that, no matter how many misses, the next shot is going in.

“I don’t care how many shots I make as long as I take great shots,” he said. “That’s all I’m worried about.”

Bucks fans should be so confident. Seeing the guy who scored 38 points Thursday (and had more to do with Milwaukee surviving Game 6 than even Antetokounmpo) misfire so badly for so long Saturday had to rattle them. Middleton was 4-for-16 heading into the fourth quarter.

Holiday was 2-for-16, struggling enough offensively in the series to draw snarky comparisons to Eric Bledsoe, the erratic point guard he replaced; Bledsoe went 2-for-12 on the night Milwaukee was eliminated from the Orlando bubble by Miami last postseason.

And then, Holiday and Middleton both re-engaged with the game. They got busy contributing in other ways, and eventually their offense caught up.

Khris Middleton: 'Never played in a game like this'

Over the fourth quarter and overtime the pair combined shoot 8-for-17. They scored 22 of Milwaukee’s final 33 points, making it OK for Antetokounmpo to score only nine of his team-high 40 in the same stretch.

Middleton had 11 points, two assists and three steals in the fourth quarter. Holiday had nine points, hitting two of his three 3-pointers. And then they locked into the overtime to make exactly the right plays for the Bucks at precisely the right time.

Once they recovered from Kevin Durant’s heart-wrenching, toes-on-the-arc shot to force the extra five minutes, that is. Milwaukee didn’t score in overtime until only 1:12 remained.

“To play that way but to still have the fight, still have the confidence to go make a play, the willingness to make a shot,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “To not have your best, and then when we needed it most, he came through.”

Kevin Durant praises Bucks' fight after tough Game 7 loss

Budenholzer was talking about Holiday, but Middleton qualified too. He was up first in the extra minutes, taking over defensively against Durant after PJ Tucker fouled out. Then at 111-111, the 6-foot-7 wing got up a turnaround jumper in the lane to put the Bucks in front with 40.7 seconds left.

After a Durant miss, Middleton pulled up for another mid-range shot that was off. The Nets declined to use their final time out and pushed into the front court, Durant now guarded by Holiday. Nearly from the same spot as his shot that ended regulation — only deeper, clearly intended to win the game — the Brooklyn sharpshooter heaved the ball over Holiday’s contest and it fell short. Short of the rim, the ball bounced out of bounds with 0.3 seconds left to effectively end the Nets’ season.

There had been plays earlier in the game when the eight inches or so Holiday, at 6-foot-3, was giving up to Durant made it to easy for him. But through defensive disappointments, in spite of the clanged shots and regardless of some foul calls he resented, Holiday stayed on task.

“That’s what he does,” Antetokounmpo said. “Make shots, miss shots, it doesn’t really matter. If you keep your composure and stay in the game and keep making the right plays — make sure you make the right pass, take the right shots — that’s what I think he did and he was able to give us a big boost at the end.”

Thanks to that, it wasn’t the end for the Bucks after all.

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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