He is not known as the Big 3 to the Bucks. Heck, Khris Middleton didn’t even make the NBA All-Star Game this season. Some casual fans may not have heard of him. He doesn’t have a nickname like “The Beard” or “KD”.
But here the three stars of the Bucks, winners of the imaginary trio of Nets, return to the Valley of the Suns.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jew Holiday will once again attempt to beat Chris Paul and Devin Booker’s Sons star backcourt as Milwaukee rides the wave of momentum for Saturday’s Game 5 final in Phoenix. If they manage to win the Bucks, you’ll hear “The Deer District” roar for Arizona.
Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday were the heroes of the late game in a dramatic 109–103 comeback in Game 4, which tied the series in game two. In the final two minutes, Antetokounmpo had an epic block on Deandre Ayton’s gully-up dunk attempt and Middleton scored 10 straight points. Holiday harassed Paul full-court, engaging him in a nightmare, turnover-based contest and watching CP3 his full 36 years.
“I think as a team we’re really good at turning the page – the next one,” Antetokounmpo said after Friday’s practice in Phoenix. “I think the team has a very good mentality in this. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
If you thought Paul would go quietly down the line with his first ring on the line, he’s not on the top-5 list, the all-time point guard for nothing.
“We’re back home, we have to defend the home court,” Paul said after the Sons flopped in both competitions in Milwaukee. “I hate it, but it’s that simple. We didn’t sweep but did a series. It’s the final. It’s dramatic. We have to defend the home court and win the game.”
The Bucks were among the expected title contenders when the season began. The Suns went on to compete for a playoff spot. But Phoenix doesn’t want this sensational Cinderella season to end bitterly after taking the finals lead 2-0.
“We’re inspired,” said Booker, whose 42-point night was reduced to zero in Game 4. “We’re embracing this moment. I don’t think anyone in this room or in this league at the start of the season expected us to be where we are.”
Paul’s five turnovers in Game 4 had his 10-point evening low light, but coach Monty Williams is hoping for his tiger to return.
“Chris is fine,” Williams said. “There’s not someone in our locker room hoping that he won’t come out and play the next game really well. But their focus is on a higher, higher level right now. You’re not going to see Chris play games like this very often. I’ll say it this way: a blip on the screen.”
Even at Middleton’s finest, Antetokounmpo stole a lot of his limelight by that one block for ages. They paid their dues to their longtime Brough City partner, however, with the Bucks looking to win their first title since 1971, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar turned the paint.
“It’s amazing,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s a lot of hard work that has paid off for Khris. I know how great he is. I think sometimes he doesn’t get appreciated enough. He’s a great freak. He scored 40 in the NBA Finals And he wasn’t an All-Star this year. What are we talking about?”
The always attacking Greek freak posted two straight 40-point games before scoring just 26 in Game 4 against the Sun’s so-called “Wall” defense. But as the competition began and eight assists were scored, he became more and more effective on the drive.
“The wall is strong where he has to get that pass out,” Middleton said. “Sometimes he’s able to break through it. Either way, he does a great job of finding that balance, keeping the defense honest, whether it’s a matter of his play or the aggression of going to the basket.” I think he has been great at it.
Booker was great even in Game 4, despite trouble with a foul, but was passed out by Middleton. Paul will have to step down on Saturday or he could retire without a championship.
“We’re not getting enough shots in the basket with the ball rolling over,” Paul said. “I’ll figure it out.”