The Milwaukee Bucks had their backs against the wall versus the Brooklyn Nets coming into Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
Down 3-2 and with another disappointing end to their season looming, the Bucks turned to a familiar All-Star who churned out 38 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, five steals, and five three pointers.
This impressive statline was the first of its kind in NBA history and was enough for Milwaukee to finish with a blowout 104-89 victory at home to force a do-or-die Game 7 in Brooklyn. The Bucks came into the Fiserv Forum focused, leading by as much as 21 points with less than five minutes remaining in the game, and did not give the Nets a single opportunity to lead throughout the evening.
The historic evening that extended the Bucks’ season by at least another game did not come, as expected, from their star from Greece, but the former second round pick hailing from Charleston, South Carolina.
Khris Middleton entered the elimination game already averaging 21.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, and four assists in the postseason, but the Bucks needed him to do more, especially on the offensive end. He responded with the finest playoff game of his career where he often looked like the best player on their team.
The 6’7 guard, who was just a throw-in when the Bucks traded Brandon Jennings to the Detroit Pistons for Brandon Knight in 2013, has been head coach Mike Budenholzer’s most reliable weapon on offense in the series with Brooklyn.
The box scores might indicate that two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo, scoring a team-leading 30.5 points in six games facing the Nets, or Jrue Holiday, with his 7.8 assists per game this postseason, have greater influence on the Bucks’ success, but it is Middleton who has seized the reigns of the Bucks as he continues to emerge as an elite facilitator.
Antetokounmpo thrives in transition and on the secondary break, but appears miscast in the Bucks’ sets when the ball is in his hands on the perimeter. He has looked awkward in isolation situations that originate beyond the three point line where he has not achieved much efficiency or fruitful results.
Meanwhile, the 2019 NBA Defensive Player of the Year’s three point shot remains spotty and he is shooting a measly 17.1% on over four attempts per game in the playoffs. Antetokounmpo did not take a three in Game 6 which curiously coincided with Milwaukee’s strongest collective showing in their six games with the Nets.
Holiday has also struggled with his shot, which has caused his field goal percentage to fall from 43.3% from over 50% in the regular season. He has served as the primary ball handler and playmaker for the Bucks, mainly in the first half of games, before handing off the responsibilities to Middleton down the stretch which was perfectly displayed in their Game 6 victory.
With the Bucks’ lead trimmed to only five points after Joe Harris hit a three with less than nine minutes left to play, the Bucks again put the fate in the hands of Middleton. On the next possession, he methodically drew a foul on Harris while taking a pull-up three pointer on the left elbow. He then hit all three free throws to bring the lead back up to a comfortable eight points.
Middleton followed it up with a rebound after James Harden missed a three pointer contested by Antetokounmpo. He proceeded to bring the ball up before quickly finding Holiday, defended by the slower Jeff Green, who drove to the basket for a lay-up that gave them a 10 point lead.
It was all Milwaukee from that point on and they found themselves up by 20 points with over four minutes left in the game which prompted the Nets’ head coach Steve Nash to throw in the towel and pull out his starters.
The most notable disparity in the game was the Bucks’ 26 fast break points as opposed to a mere four from the Nets who were fixated on giving Harden and Kevin Durant isolations in the half court.
Durant finished with 32 points, barely 48 hours after his 49 point triple double masterpiece in Game 5, but Harden, still visibly far from full health, contributed a paltry-by-his-standards 16 points on nine shots together with seven assists.
Blake Griffin had a second consecutive double digit performance, but the Nets will need all three of him, Harris, and Green to step up in Game 7 with Kyrie Irving’s status still uncertain.
The home team has won all six of the games in this series so far, but if Middleton’s recent play is any indication, and if Antetokounmpo plays within his offensive limitations like he did in Game 6, the Bucks are not going to give the Nets an easy path to the Eastern Conference finals.
With how this best-of-seven has played out so far, Game 7 promises to be a thrilling finish to what has been a dramatic series between two of the East’s top championship contenders.