It has been an interesting postseason for the Milwaukee Bucks, to say the least. And no player has better exemplified the roller coaster of emotions of the Milwaukee Bucks experience better than Khris Middleton. In recent memory, it has hard to think of a player who has had peaks and valleys quite like Middleton has during this year’s playoffs. He has been both the subject of immense praise and comparisons to Kobe Bryant as well as the target of intense social media vitriol and blame when Milwaukee has struggled.
Y’all can’t say this man is good when he has 1 good game he needs to be able to get buckets multiple nights not just 1 night out it like this.. consistency is good inconsistency is bad and das khris Middleton https://t.co/ul9XPpEYqp
— LT🔥🤙🏽 (@CortezP474) June 24, 2021
Much of the discourse surrounding the Bucks for the past couple of seasons has (predictably) centered around their unequivocal star and centerpiece, two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Discussions about the Bucks’ status as a legitimate contender and whether they possessed the mettle to win a championship were framed around Giannis’ ability to be the kind of player who could lead them to the promised land. His lackluster offensive versatility, particularly his below-average capabilities as a jump shooter and limited playmaking ability in crunch time situations, were understandably being emphasized after Milwaukee’s embarrassing second-round defeat to the Miami Heat in just five games last postseason. Fans and pundits alike questioned whether Giannis could be the kind of player that goes toe-to-toe with the Durants and Kawhis of the world at the end of games and will them to victory.
The answer to their late-game woes was, of course, on the roster all along. Middleton has shown the ability to be a closer in a way that Giannis simply cannot. The first sign that he was up to the challenge was when he drilled this game-winner in game one of their first-round series against the Miami Heat.
That is a really really tough shot. Middleton is trailed by two defenders off the screen and Goran Dragic even slides off of his man for a second to help. Nevertheless, he rises up and fades away with minimal space and kisses it off the back rim. Giannis Antetokounmpo is an incredible, generational type of player, but that shot is just not in his portfolio. If a team is relying on Giannis’ shotmaking to win them games in such a situation, they are going to draw the short end of the stick more times than not.
So back to the starting point. Middleton clearly has the ability and willingness to be a closer for Milwaukee. Some have even anointed him the alpha of the team in light of his recent 38 point performance in the Bucks’ game three win against the Atlanta Hawks.
.@KendrickPerkins thinks Giannis is the "Robin" of the Bucks' team 👀
"Right now, on this Milwaukee Bucks team, Khris Middleton is the Batman." pic.twitter.com/tqeaW0sRN3
— First Take (@FirstTake) June 28, 2021
But the question is, can he do it consistently and at a high enough level for the Bucks to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy? As mentioned earlier, this year’s playoffs season has been an up-and-down affair for Middleton. He has averaged 23.1 points on 43.3 percent shooting from the field and 35.5 percent from three on 7.6 attempts per game. These are solid numbers to be sure, but he has shot under 40 percent from the field in five of their 15 playoff games. He was particularly shaky in their seven-game series against the Brooklyn Nets where he just could not seem to get anything going on the road. In games that took place in Brooklyn during the series, he shot 30/91 (32.96%) from the field and had a combined plus-minus of -36. On the other side of the coin, there have been games in which Middleton has been an absolute revelation and won Milwaukee games on the strength of his offensive prowess. He has scored over 20 points eight times and over 25 six times, including three 35 plus point performances. In short, when Middleton is good, he is really good in a manner that changes the game. The Bucks are 7-1 when he scores 20 or more points and 3-0 in games where he scores at least 35. Conversely, the Bucks are 6-3 in games when Giannis scores 30 or more points. This is not to say that Giannis does not impact winning, he is the team’s best player and his success obviously has a tremendous impact on the Bucks’, but he can pour in 30 points and 10 rebounds and still lose if he gets no help shouldering the offensive load and closing out games. Middleton has an impact on Milwaukee’s success in a way that cannot be underscored.
It would be easy to chalk up Middleton’s inconsistency to the pressures of an away crowd or something fundamentally psychological, but that is not the case. The bottom line is that he takes a lot of really tough shots. In the regular season, just 15 percent of Middleton’s shot attempts came with 0-3 feet of the rim, a very low percentage for a player who averages over 20 points per game. While a strong 34 percent of his attempts are threes, the other 51 percent come from somewhere in the midrange area. As analytics have demonstrated for years, these are some of the lowest efficiency and hardest shots to make in the NBA. From a point per possession standpoint, these shots are very low-yield because they are not worth the extra point like a 3-pointer and are usually more heavily contested.
While there is no readily available data about the percent of field goal attempts by distance in the NBA playoffs this year, anyone who has watched the Bucks this postseason would vouch that Middleton takes a lot of midrange shots, just like he did during the regular season. When he makes them, it is fantastic and he keeps the defense on its toes. Kobe Bryant was known for taking and making these shots, particularly in clutch situations, hence the comparison between the two. Jamal Crawford eloquently described the mid-range shot as akin to “like a jab in boxing, it keeps you honest” on the Ball Don’t Stop Podcast.
The problem is that he does not always make these shots, at least not consistently. The key for Middleton and the Bucks, as the playoffs continue, is going to be finding a way to be a more reliable and steady shot-maker. Even Giannis, one of the best basketball players in the world, recently emphasized Middleton’s importance to the Bucks’ success, saying “I want to be a winner. I have the whole game to be ‘the guy.’ I don’t care about being the guy in the fourth quarter. I trust Khris to death. If Khris asks for the ball, better give him the ball.”
Giannis on Khris Middleton, the closer, in part: “I want to be a winner. I have the whole game to be ‘the guy.’ I don't care about being the guy in the fourth quarter. I trust Khris to death. If Khris asks for the ball, better give him the ball.”
— Malika Andrews (@malika_andrews) June 28, 2021
Seeing a guy who was in the G-Leauge earlier in his career become one of, if not the most, important player on a championship-contending team from a small market is one of the most unlikely but uplifting stories in recent NBA history, one that is not being talked about quite enough. He might not be Kobe, but he is a damn good NBA player who has walked a unique path to get where he is today. It is hard to root against a player like Khris Middleton who has worked so hard to be in this position. Here’s to hoping he finds a way to keep making tough shots.
All stats courtesy of Pro Basketball-Reference and ESPN
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