ATLANTA — The game was screaming for someone, anyone to say “enough” — to cut through the emotion of the night and take command of this series.
Khris Middleton stepped in and although he was probably hard to hear, his right wrist did the talking for him, the Milwaukee Bucks and the rest of the NBA took notice.
Middleton has been with Giannis Antetokounmpo since the days both were battling in practice over playing time eight years ago, and while Antetokounmpo has blossomed into a two-time MVP, Middleton has turned himself into a closer.
Another swing game had Middleton’s fingerprints on it, a 20-point fourth quarter to cap off a 38-point night gave the Bucks a 2-1 Eastern Conference finals lead over the surprising and gamely Atlanta Hawks, a 113-102 win Sunday at State Farm Arena.
It’s not easy being a No. 2 option in the NBA. There’s a level of security and confidence one must possess while also understanding there’s a time and place to exert your influence. Middleton nestles almost perfectly with Antetokounmpo’s wide-ranging talents, needing only a second to get a shot up and being given just a sliver of real estate to work with. The Bucks needed all Middleton had to give in the fourth quarter, the two-time All-Star spurring a 22-5 run after his team fell behind 95-88 in front of a thirsty crowd.
They kept finding him on broken plays, and he kept delivering, hitting 8-of-13 shots and four triples. He shook off picking up his fifth foul to take out his frustrations on the Hawks instead of the officials.
The years of frustrations and underachieving are starting to lift, ever so slightly. Perhaps it was getting over the hyped Brooklyn Nets or maybe just naturally coming of age, but the Bucks are comporting themselves like they belong beyond this stage — like it’s just a matter of time.
“Sometimes you gotta go through some things,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think he’s in a good place. I think our whole group [is]. The foul trouble, sometimes that can get you off your game. Both teams are constantly complaining.
“Khris isn’t any different, but then to compose himself, deal with his foul trouble, deal with whatever’s going on in the game, compose himself, score 20 in the fourth quarter — speaks to his character, his growth. He’s a hell of a player.”
Of course it should be noted the Hawks played with a limited Trae Young in the fourth quarter after Young sprained his right ankle on a referee’s foot in the third quarter, as he was unable to truly attack the Bucks defense while scoring the majority of his 35 points.
But hardly anyone else was able to find a true rhythm, and for the first time in a long time, the Hawks started to show their youth. They rode the wave and ran out to a 15-point lead in the first quarter, looking as if the Bucks would be facing a deficit and some playoff demons.
The Bucks have learned to pace a game through time, to play maturely and even stay within arm’s reach when they’re not playing at their peak.
The Atlanta Hawks, should they lose this series, will have that as a big takeaway, their inability to do the little things: Getting back on defense after scores or even missed opportunities, boxing out and controlling the glass after solid defensive efforts, undoing their own work.
Bogdan Bogdanovic shot just 3 of 16 and John Collins played just 23 minutes with foul trouble, but the Hawks don’t have the personnel to match up with the Bucks when they want to play bully ball or the experience of past failures.
Most of all, they don’t have a Khris Middleton.
“He starts to see it going in, he starts to feel good. He can score different ways,” Budenholzer said.
Antetokounmpo turned in another masterful performance, 33 points, 11 rebounds. Although he hit a triple in the fourth quarter to pull the Bucks closer, he stayed in attack mode throughout as a light might’ve come on internally, stating there’s not a soul who could defend his combination of speed and physicality.
But the maturity he displayed in giving Middleton the space to dominate in the fourth, not needing to force his will on the game, should be a warning sign for the foreseeable future.
“I’d take that every day,” Antetokounmpo said. “I have the whole game to be the guy. If he wants to be the guy, if PJ, if Bobby, and it helps us win the game, that’s what I care about.
“I trust this guy to death. If he wants the ball, he gets it. You better give him the ball.”
Middleton can be quiet and blend into the game, often resulting in outside calls for a different co-star for Antetokounmpo. His stats have largely stayed flat in the three years under Budenholzer, but he looks so much more comfortable in his role and his confidence appears unshakable.
“I don’t think about the stage whenever we’re playing,” Middleton said. “I try to stay in the moment, the possession. Not worry about the playoffs, or regular season or must-win, or a preseason game. I try to play everything the same way.”
He scoffed at being the postseason closer, believing the ball goes to the hot hand. Jrue Holiday gave the Bucks a go-ahead lead in a must-win Game 3 against Brooklyn but the ball finds Middleton. He put the first dagger into the Miami Heat in round one, with a game-winner with tenths of a second remaining before their surprising sweep.
“During the postseason, we realize each game is a different game,” Middleton said. “Each game matters, you can’t look ahead or behind. I try to talk to the guys on the bench and timeouts. Mistakes happen, stay with it.”
A couple days ago, Antetokounmpo and Middleton casually chatted about how long they wanted to continue playing. Antetokounmpo wouldn’t divulge Middleton’s career plans — neither are 30 yet — but he spoke to the bond they’ve forged, through progression and through failure.
“It’ll be the toughest day of my career, because I’ve been with you the whole time,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s been an unbelievable journey, it’s great seeing this guy, where he started, where I started. Closing games. That’s what we need from Khris.”
Middleton keeps it up, they’ll have some jewelry to share pretty soon.
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