It’s hard to imagine being in a more difficult basketball situation than being down 3-0 to a team that has had your number all season as you watch your best player, and likely back-to-back MVP, hobble to the locker room, not to return for the rest of the game. But with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the locker room nursing a sprained ankle, Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton reminded everyone that Giannis isn’t the team’s only All-Star as they came away with a 118-115 overtime win over the Miami Heat to force a Game 5 on Tuesday.
Milwaukee’s offense was stagnant to begin the game, with Antetokounmpo’s 19 points in 11 minutes the only reason they were hanging around. After he was ruled out for the second half, however, Middleton went to work, scoring 21 points in the third quarter and nine in overtime en route to 36 for the game. He also added eight rebounds, eight assists and two steals, and made the biggest shot of the night — a dagger 3-pointer from the top of the key to put the Bucks up four with just over six seconds left in overtime.
The most impressive thing about Middleton’s performance was the way he was getting his points. Milwaukee wasn’t running elaborate actions or misdirection — they gave Middleton the ball and basically said, “go to work.” And go to work he did, scoring with an assortment of pull-ups, step-backs and floaters to get big basket after big basket as the Bucks faced elimination. Pretty much every Heat player took a shot at defending him, and none could find consistent success.
Interestingly enough, Middleton’s savior turn came after two full days of pundits and fans shouting that Giannis doesn’t have enough help. That may be true, but Middleton has certainly played his part, averaging 23 points, 6.7 assists and five rebounds in the first three games of the series before Sunday’s outburst.
His accomplishments get lost next to Giannis, but let’s not forget that Middleton averaged 20.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists this season in less than 30 minutes per game, while missing the exclusive 50-40-90 club by .003 field goal percentage points. He’s a two-time All-Star for a reason, and he also takes on much more playmaking and scoring responsibilities than people who think he’s just a spot-up shooter may realize.
All of that said, you have to be truly special to do what Middleton just did. We’ve seen plenty of players much higher on the NBA Top 100 lists come up short in similar situations. Having the “will to win” is a cliché, but that’s really the only way to describe what we witnessed from Middleton on Sunday, particularly late in overtime after logging 47 minutes — by far his highest total of the season (he’d only played over 40 minutes once this year).
Antetokounmpo’s status for Game 5 is up in the air, but it certainly begs the question that if he’s hampered in any way — or even if he’s not — if Middleton should take on more offensive responsibility moving forward. You can’t expect him to put up 36 points every night, but he’s displayed an ability to create offense out of nothing, which Milwaukee has desperately needed throughout the series against the stingy Heat defense.
The Bucks will probably still lose this series, but the confidence that Middleton gained through a playoff performance like this could be incredibly important for the franchise’s future.