Late in the third quarter of Sunday night’s playoff game between the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks in Atlanta, casual fans watching Trae Young continue to defy the odds were instead treated to a different kind of offensive masterpiece. Khris Middleton, at this point the second-best player on his own team, suddenly found himself as the closer in a crucial game three.
That he was able to do this with some well-timed efforts, including one particularly tough corner 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, speaks volumes of who Middleton is as a player. He might even be the most unheralded veteran two-time All-Star in the league.
For the fans who don’t tune into November games featuring the Bucks taking on the Charlotte Hornets and Sacramento Kings of the world, there is sure to have been surprise. Why was it that Middleton had the ball so much, and not two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo?
The Milwaukee Bucks are edging closer to making the NBA Finals, and with it, there is finally recognition of Khris Middleton’s game.
The reality is Middleton has one of the smoothest games in the league and would be an absolute star if he played for many other organizations.
It may be hard for Middleton to slot in behind Giannis and watch him get all of the praise. Yet as the Bucks have gone into deep waters in these playoffs, the conversation has too often revolved around the inability of Antetokounmpo to hit free throws consistently. Or else run into opponents in an attempt to bulldoze them, only to turn the ball over. Or settle for 3-pointers.
More than that, the addition of Jrue Holiday during the offseason, even if the price was high, has meant that his play on both ends has been praised as one of the real reasons that the Bucks are where they are right now. Defending isn’t always sexy, and when you’re one of the few players in the league who can do so at an elite level that people care about, that gets you noticed.
Holiday has also had some moments, notably in game one of this series, where it was he who was carrying the Bucks for stretches. Having 33 points and 10 assists, while doing all he can to shut down Young, is going to earn you a ton of plaudits. Rightly so. In that same game, Middleton had a more modest 15 points and five assists as the Hawks pulled out a win.
But after Sunday’s win, everybody saw what Bucks fans and Giannis himself has witnessed countless times in the regular season when the spotlight is not as big. Middleton is a gifted offensive player, leading the team in scoring with 38 points (as well as 11 rebounds and 7 assists) in a game that wasn’t over until Middleton made sure that it was.
Holiday may be the better two-way player (although Middleton is underrated defensively as well), and Giannis is the individual who will likely win Finals MVP if the Bucks get that far. But we now have the proof that in a close game in enemy territory in the playoffs, that it is the game of Middleton that will get them over the hump.
This season his averages were right around, or better than, his career highs. Yet Middleton was not an All-Star for what would have been the third straight year. In the postseason, his scoring numbers in every series so far this year have been higher than the 20.4 points he averaged per game during the regular season.
Despite some quieter nights, Middleton has become the best complimentary star in the league today. Doesn’t look for any of the limelight, or appear to care for it either. Just lets Antetokounmpo have most of the praise and doesn’t mind slotting in behind Holiday when he has it going either.
If the Bucks can win a championship with this group, then Middleton may be the spiritual successor to Scottie Pippen, even if their games are very different. Much like prime Pippen, can you imagine how good Middleton would look, and how much he would be adored by another fanbase if he was the guy on their team?
As the primary offensive option for the Orlando Magic for example. A franchise that has been crying out for high-level wing scoring for a long time. Middleton’s play alongside their current cast would surely get them to the postseason, and that is a young core he would be playing with. Yet Middleton is a rare breed, and he knows that he is in a good situation where he is.
Playing with the Bucks, who are deep and have a true superstar, a poor night from him flies under the radar. They happen too, although consistency in scoring has been a hallmark of Middleton’s game for years. To average over 20 points a game in three of the last four seasons is not easily done, and it may be that the career of Middleton is appreciated more when he retires.
Khris Middleton’s “bag” isn’t all that showy, but it can be ruthlessly efficient to the point that he is one of the best pure scorers in the league today. A career 39.5 percent shooter from deep, with more spaces appearing in the midrange these days, he is comfortable there too. In fact, he is comfortable anywhere, and seeing him have his moment now must be so satisfying for fans of the Milwaukee Bucks.