With or without Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton has established himself as Bucks closer

It was just last month that the Bucks found themselves on the verge of elimination after being torched by Nets star Kevin Durant in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. It was do-or-die for Milwaukee in Game 6, and a loss to an injury-plagued Brooklyn squad would have resulted in potentially serious and far-reaching ramifications for the franchise.

In the biggest moment of their season, to whom did the Bucks turn? Not toward two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, though he was still excellent in the series. It was Khris Middleton who stepped up and took control when it mattered most. The 29-year-old became the steadying force Milwaukee needed in that contest, and he did it again in Game 7 to eliminate the Nets and send the Bucks to the next round.

So it should have been no surprise that, when Antetokounmpo went down with a hyperextended left knee after an ugly fall against the Hawks, it was Middleton who delivered on the Eastern Conference finals stage. Middleton scored a game-high 32 points in Milwaukee’s 118-107 victory over Atlanta on Saturday night, propelling the Bucks to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974. He had 23 points in the third quarter alone, giving his team enough of a cushion to withstand a late Hawks surge.

“My teammates and my coaches, they told me to keep being aggressive,” Middleton said of his third-quarter outburst. “One of the coaches always tells me to pass it to the rim instead of a turnover. Just shoot, be confident and just try to play the right way.”

This was Middleton’s follow-up to a near triple-double in the previous win against the Hawks. In the final two games of the Bucks’ last two series, Middleton has averaged 29.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists with shooting splits of 47.6/41.9/92.9 (field goals/3-pointers/free throws).

“At the end of the day, Khris carried us,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said after Game 6. “He put us on his shoulders. I’m riding with him right to the Finals.”

In an era in which NBA debates often center around stars being the No. 1 option and possessing the “clutch gene,” Milwaukee has landed in a gray area. Antetokounmpo is clearly the team’s best player, a two-way monster at the center of everything the Bucks do — until the game gets tight. Then it’s Middleton’s time to shine, a fact that Antetokounmpo has even recognized.

Whether Antetokounmpo is available to play in the NBA Finals against the Suns or stuck on the bench with his knee injury, the ball will continue to fall into Middleton’s capable hands. And if you ask any of Middleton’s teammates, that’s right where it should be.

“The things that he does — his calm, cool, collected nature — it’s awesome to see him put himself in a position to have the type of series and postseason that he’s had,” Bucks guard Pat Connaughton said. “Because we all see the hours that he’s put in, but for the world to see it, it’s awesome for him. It’s just joyful for me as a guy who’s been with him for three years to see him have this moment and see him continue to show why he is an All-Star, why he is the second-best player on a championship-contending team.

“He can be that, and he is that.”

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