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‘He’s been playing his role perfectly’ – Why Khris Middleton is the Bucks’ third key to success

MILWAUKEE — KHRIS MIDDLETON was having a quiet evening.

Through three quarters against the Houston Rockets, he’d scored just eight points — including none in the third quarter. Middleton faded into the background as the Milwaukee Bucks’ superstar duo cooked. Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 22 points, while eight-time All-Star Damian Lillard topped that with 32 of his own.

But what had been a 14-point Bucks lead late in the third quarter quickly was cut to six less than three minutes into the final frame. That’s when Middleton took over.

First came a 20-foot jumper to extend the lead back to eight. After Rockets forward Tari Eason answered, Middleton took it back at Eason, using a jab step to free up space to drive toward one of his favorite spots on the floor, near the top of the key. In rhythm, Middleton knocked down a turnaround 18-footer that he has made so many times before in his 12-year career while drawing a foul from Eason, giving Milwaukee a nine-point cushion.

When the lead was cut to three with 5:56 remaining, the Bucks found Middleton once again. The Rockets sent a double team to force the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands, and he swung the ball out to the perimeter toward rookie Andre Jackson Jr., who kicked it over to Lillard, who drew two defenders charging at him and delivered a pass to Middleton, who knocked down a wide-open 3.

“That’s part of my role now,” Middleton said after the game Sunday night. “Figuring out when to be aggressive, when to be a playmaker and when just to fit in.”

Middleton scored 14 of the Bucks’ first 22 points in the fourth quarter, helping his team to a 128-119 win on Dec. 17, their fourth in a row. Even with the late scoring onslaught, Middleton was still third in scoring for Milwaukee, behind Lillard’s 39 points and a 26-point, 17-rebound performance from Antetokounmpo on a night when he broke Kareem’s Abdul-Jabbar franchise rebounding record.

“If you want to call him a third option,” Rockets coach Ime Udoka said before the game. “He’s a great third option to have.”

Although the Bucks have won more regular-season games than any other NBA team since 2018-19 and ended the 2020-21 season as NBA champions, they felt the need to make major changes following a disappointing playoff exit in April. Out was coach Mike Budenholzer, replaced by first-year head coach Adrian Griffin. Then later in the summer, the Bucks shook up their roster, jumping at a chance to pair Lillard and Antetokounmpo. But every superstar duo still needs support.

Middleton’s role is not the same as it was for the 2021 championship team, when he made 15 game-tying or go-ahead shots in the fourth quarter or overtime during that postseason, tying LeBron James (2007) for the most in a single postseason of the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Averaging 13.1 points on 47% shooting in 23 games this year, Middleton is still an essential piece of the Bucks’ supporting cast, one who has a history of clutch performances for a team with aspirations of winning another championship. Performances such as the one against the Rockets illustrate why the chemistry he forms alongside Milwaukee’s star duo will be vital to its success this season.

“Dame has the ball, I have the ball and maybe [Middleton] has the ball a little bit less,” Antetokounmpo said Sunday night. “But at the end of the day, he’s a professional. He knows what it takes to win. He knows his role. There’s going to be times down the stretch where he has to score the ball for us. And he knows that. He stays ready for that.

“Throughout this whole season, he’s been playing his role perfectly. You could not ask for more. The minutes that he’s been given, and those are going up slowly, slowly, slowly. Maybe one day he can play back-to-backs. But right now I think Khris is doing an unbelievable job, being mature, being OK with his role and playing the game the right way.”

ONE OF MILWAUKEE’S biggest growing pains at the start of the season involved managing Middleton’s minutes.

Shortly after the Bucks were upset in the first-round of last year’s playoffs, Middleton had a surgical procedure on his right knee, an injury that had been nagging him since the first round of the 2022 playoffs. Middleton missed all of Milwaukee’s seven-game series against the Boston Celtics in the 2022 Eastern Conference semifinals and then played only 33 regular-season games last year with a combination of wrist and knee issues.

So, Milwaukee vowed not to make the same mistakes entering this season, the first of Middleton’s new three-year, $102 contract, and developed a plan to ease him into the season with perhaps the strictest minutes restriction in the league. Middleton, 32, averaged less than 20 minutes per game over his first 10 games of the season and did not reach more than 22 minutes until Nov. 20. He missed one game because of an Achilles injury, has not played in games on consecutive days and reached the 30 minute mark only once, during an overtime victory against Chicago on Dec. 11, but he has made it through the season healthy so far, a win for both him and the Bucks after more than a year spent recovering from nagging injuries.

“The plan has been great,” Middleton said earlier this week. “Been feeling great every step of the way.”

Managing Middleton’s limited minutes early was an adjustment for Griffin, who had to be reminded during a game in Toronto earlier this season that Middleton had a few extra minutes available. After initially burning through Middleton’s allotted playing time for the first three quarters, Griffin began strategizing to make sure Middleton could be on the floor with the team in the fourth quarter. Middleton ended up playing nearly eight minutes in the final frame, as the Bucks secured a road win without Antetokounmpo, who was sidelined by a strained right calf.

Middleton’s playing time has gradually increased as the season has gone on. He averaged 16.6 minutes in October, 21.1 minutes in November and 28.7 minutes so far in December. Still, keeping him under 30 has become more difficult, because the Bucks’ depth at the wing position has been tested. Forward Jae Crowder has been out since mid-November because of an abdominal tear, and Pat Connaughton missed six games because of a sprained ankle, forcing Milwaukee to rely on younger players, such as Jackson and MarJon Beauchamp. But as Middleton gets closer to his old form, his presence helps cover up holes in the roster depth.

“There were several games where he was at a hard cap where it was challenging for us as well just because some of those games are close and we had to get him out,” Griffin said before a game last week. “Him now having some consistent minutes and us having a better idea of the minutes that he can play and feel great the next morning, I think that’s huge for us.

“I always say this, when Khris is on the floor, we’re just a better team.”

KEEPING MIDDLETON ON the floor is one task, but fitting him in alongside Lillard and Antetokounmpo on the court is another.

Middleton has been playing with Antetokounmpo since the latter entered into the league in 2013-14, and no player has better on-court chemistry with the two-time MVP. For years when the Bucks needed to create a basket in the half court late in games, they put the ball in Middleton’s hands and let him go to work. Now with Dame Time in Milwaukee, Middleton is happy to share the late-game spotlight.

“Coming up along high school, college, a lot of my years, I was a guy playing off the ball, playing as a shooter,” Middleton told ESPN following a game in Chicago last month. “It’s a balance. Sometimes I’m going to have it, sometimes I’m going to be playing off the ball, which I think is great for me. It’s easy. Whatever set we’re going to run, we’ve got unselfish guys that can close the game with myself, Giannis and Dame.”

It’s clear how good those three can be together. The Bucks outscore their opponents by 18.4 points per 100 possessions when Antetokounmpo, Lillard and Middleton share the floor together this season, the 4th-best three-man unit among the 173 in the NBA that have played at least 300 minutes together.

Middleton has also quickly developed chemistry with Lillard, and the two have been playing well together without Antetokounmpo on the floor. The Bucks have a plus-21.3 net efficiency when Lillard and Middleton share the floor without Antetokounmpo, a limited sample (45 minutes), but they’re keeping the Bucks positive when their best player sits.

“[Middleton is] an extremely smart player,” Lillard said. “He’s an X’s and O’s guy, so he sees the game well. Me as a point guard of 12 years, I see the game really well. … He’s like that. It helps our connection on the floor. It helps us be on the same page.”

Together, the trio has made Milwaukee’s offense strong from every area on the floor. Antetokounmpo dominates the paint. Lillard is one of the best long-range shooters in the league. And Middleton has thrived in the middle, shooting 58% on 2-point jumpers, per Second Spectrum, the best mark in the NBA among players with at least 50 attempts.

Middleton’s midrange shooting has been invaluable to the Bucks as a safety valve when Lillard and Antetokounmpo face double-teams, which happens often. The Bucks rank in the top five in the league in double-teams faced per game this season. Antetokounmpo ranks in the top 10 in total double teams face, per NBA Advanced Stats, while Lillard ranks in the top 10 in blitzes faced when using an on-ball screen as the ball handler, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

Antetokounmpo believes Middleton has been a seamless fit next to Milwaukee’s pair of superstars because of how many different roles Middleton has played throughout his career, which began as a second-round pick by the Detroit Pistons before getting traded to Milwaukee and turning himself into an three-time All-Star.

“There’s going to be times where he has to do a little bit of everything,” Antetokounmpo said. “There’s going to be some times where he has to just catch and shoot. There’s going to be sometimes where he has to play off the dribble. There’s going to be some times he’s going to have to take over in the fourth quarter. He’s capable of doing all of those things because he’s done it all in his career.

“One thing I’ll say about Khris, he knows how to play the game. He’s never going to force the issue. And that’s maturity on his part.”


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