Giannis Antetokounmpo may be the Milwaukee Bucks’ best player, but more often than not it’s Khris Middleton who defines the team’s success.
When Middleton has things going, the Bucks can weather any storm and match even the best teams shot-for-shot. But when he’s cold, he’s C-O-L-D. Middleton’s missed shots tighten things up for Antetokounmpo inside and force him to take ill-advised shots. When the two-time All-Star is in a slump, Milwaukee look lost and become desperate for answers on offense. Today’s game was a perfect example of that.
While all praises and credit belong to the Atlanta Hawks for their 110-88 win to tie the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2, Game 4 was the perfect opportunity for the Bucks to strike fast and strike hard. Trae Young sat out this game due to his right ankle injury and without their franchise cornerstone and offensive lynchpin, one would think the Hawks would be the ones to fold. Instead, the opposite happened.
Atlanta came out firing on all cylinders thanks to the insertion of professional scorer Lou Williams into the starting lineup. Williams couldn’t miss in the first half, and his efforts helped give the Hawks a 51-38 halftime lead. He would eventually miss two shots in the second half and finish with a game-high 21 points, but it was a night where even Clint Capela could pull out some tricks out of his bag.
Complicating matters for Milwaukee was the loss of Antetokounmpo in the second half. The two-time MVP had an awkward fall and hyperextended his left knee after trying to contest a Capela dunk attempt with 7:14 left in the third quarter. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, as Giannis surpassed his first half scoring output and overcame air balls at the free throw and three-point line to bring down the deficit to single digits. When Antetokounmpo exited, Atlanta closed the game out with a 48-36 run.
Now, with the possibility of Antetokounmpo sitting out for at least a game, all eyes will be on Middleton. Jrue Holiday has struggled with his shot in this series and for much of the postseason, so with Giannis out, the openings may now be few and far between.
The complexion of the Bucks offense changes should Antetokounmpo miss some time. Depending on their starting lineup in the next game, Milwaukee can deploy a group that will stay on the perimeter and spread the defense. The 5-and-out lineup and no Antetokounmpo on the floor also means that Middleton and Holiday must use their own drives to the rim to create scoring opportunities. The latter may be shooting bricks on most nights in the playoffs, but his assist numbers have nevertheless remained consistent.
Whether the shots created from these opportunities will fall, however, is another matter. With the way the team is set up (regardless if Antetokounmpo is on the floor), they all feed off of the shots of Middleton. When his shots are on target, it gives Giannis space and provides confidence to the rest of the team’s scorers knowing that their shot-maker has their back.
While losing Giannis also means losing an elite option in the pick-and-roll, they can still run some similar sets. Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis may not draw the same pull as Antetokounmpo would, but if it can create openings for Middleton and in turn make the Hawks forget about some of the Bucks’ shooters, that should help get the job done.
As it stands, Milwaukee is now going to live and die by Khris Middleton. The Hawks know this, and thanks to their Game 4 win without Trae Young, they come into the next game with some newfound confidence. In what is now a virtual best-of-three series, the margin of error for both teams is now razor thin, and it looks like Atlanta has adjusted nicely.
Injuries have hurt both teams in some way, shape, or form, but in a tightly scheduled season such as this, the “next man up” mentality becomes even more prevalent. Now, it’s Middleton’s turn to answer the call for the Milwaukee Bucks with a spot in the NBA Finals still hanging in the balance.