basketball

Khris Middleton is back, and so are realistic NBA championship expectations for the Bucks

DETROIT — It has been 280 days since the Milwaukee Bucks could say they were whole, 280 days from the day Khris Middleton injured his wrist in their first-round series against Chicago, 280 days from the day their chances at a repeat championship went down the drain.

But Middleton emerging after his start-and-stop season to date was a sight to see — and a return to realistic title expectations for the Bucks.

He came off the bench to play 15 minutes Monday in their 150-130 win over the Detroit Pistons in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. The Pistons are without cornerstone Cade Cunningham and still likely road-weary from their Paris trip last week, but this beatdown was likely coming regardless of the circumstances.

The Bucks played with fervor and a pop that was a sharp contrast from the Malaise they’ve worn for a few stretches this season. Giannis Antetokounmpo returned from a five-game absence and didn’t look out of rhythm at all, scoring 20 in the first quarter and finishing with 29 and 12 rebounds in 26 minutes.

The numbers are immaterial, in a way, but the feeling of optimism was palpable in the locker room afterward.

“The band is back together,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s good to see him out there, run up and down, connect with him, play with him. It’s been a long time. He was doing rehab and going through the battle by himself.”

If the Bucks were a band, Antetokounmpo would, of course, be the lead singer. David Ruffin, Ronald Isley, Michael Jackson — take your pick. Middleton isn’t a background voice; he might not even be someone you’d notice at first glance in that way.

But he makes everything better, like a great bass player. You might not know James Jamerson from The Funk Brothers, but you’d know his guitar riffs and bass lines when you hear them — giving room for the star to be the star.

“I try to pride myself in my job, making everybody’s job easier. Take a lot of pressure off Giannis and Jrue [Holiday], everyone,” Middleton told Yahoo Sports. “Me being out gives those other guys a chance to grow, which will make us better in the long run.”

Milwaukee was fifth in 3-point percentage the past two seasons, but this year, the Bucks are 18th. Middleton shot 39% in that period — think they’ve missed him much?

The Bucks have been admirable in his stead as a whole, especially with Holiday stepping into the second scorer role and Bobby Portis arguably being the league’s top sixth man. But there aren’t too many players like Middleton — and certainly nobody on this current Bucks roster.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton played just his eighth game this season in Monday’s win over the Detroit Pistons. His return puts the Bucks in realistic title content. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

It’s almost like he sits on a 12-foot string from Antetokounmpo, keeping himself in sight and defenses honest when Antetokounmpo barrels or pirouettes down the lane for one of those long-armed finishes — and ready for the kickout if the defense bites.

Middleton was 3-of-7 from the field with six turnovers, many of them in scattered play, but his timing was expected to be off. The wrist surgery that cost him the first 20 games of the season and knee soreness that kept him out since mid-December weren’t a recipe to produce a sharp showing.

Let’s be clear. Every contender in the East has endured some level of major strife. Boston’s coach was in scandal right before training camp, Brooklyn makes a deal with drama every year, and Philadelphia is always flirting with it, one way or the other.

Middleton’s absence was Milwaukee’s cross to bear. Losing five of six from Dec. 21 to Jan. 1, then three of five before Monday, didn’t cause a league-wide alarm, but nothing Milwaukee does will move the needle until the playoffs — the benefit of consistently flying below the radar.

“This is where things get interesting across the season for every team,” Middleton told Yahoo Sports. This is where you make that playoff push before the All-Star break, find out who you are. So I’m definitely excited to be back around this time. This is where everybody steps up their game, fights for their seeding and trying to play their best basketball going forward.”

League sources told Yahoo Sports that the Bucks are very much in play for Phoenix swingman Jae Crowder, but you get the feeling their offer is their offer, and they’ll be ready to make a move on a secondary situation if Crowder is moved elsewhere — probably in the mold of a versatile, rugged defender who can make shots.

Any addition would fortify a well-oiled roster, but even without personnel moves, they have enough to win the East.

“The healthier we are, the more chance we have to play our best basketball late in the season,” Antetokounmpo said. Guys are not available, it makes our jobs harder. I try to focus on our team. I’m not sure what’s going on around the league. [But] the more healthy we are, the more chances we have to be great.”

It’s easy to say now and impossible to prove, but with a healthy Middleton last spring, it would’ve been tough to see anyone beat the Bucks in a seven-game series. Not even the dynamic warriors. We don’t talk about it much because Middleton’s game is so understated and because, rightfully, Antetokounmpo takes up so much oxygen.

But Middleton put up a 40-point game in the 2021 Finals to help the Bucks come back from a 2-0 deficit — which we don’t talk about much because the clinching play in that game was arguably the greatest cat-and-mouse Defensive play of all time, authored by Antetokounmpo.

You never know. I’ll never know. Every confident player will say, ‘We had a chance,’ but it didn’t happen,” Middleton told Yahoo Sports of last season’s shortened playoff run. “At the time, it was frustrating, but now I’m not [frustrated]. It’s added motivation, and we gotta do this. I’m not gonna say we should’ve beat Boston, we should’ve won the NBA championship. That’s a hell of a team over there. I would be discrediting my respect to those guys from the other side.”

He also recognizes his importance, too. He has a $40.4 million player option for next season, but he could decline that and sign a deal that keeps him in Milwaukee through his mid-30s. A strong finish and playoff run could only enhance his case.

“Of course you want to be healthy and in the best position and play the best basketball you can,” Middleton told Yahoo Sports. “Those things take care of themselves in the offseason. Only one thing to worry about — that’s the game.”

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