The Milwaukee Bucks have been frustrated with the Orlando Magic and have not gotten going. In the fourth quarter of Game 4, they cashed in.
Milwaukee Bucks guard Khris Middleton’s nickname is “Cash.”
That is because he is one of the most efficient and deadly scorers in the league. He fell only a few percentage points shy of joining the vaunted 50-40-90 club. To do that at his volume is even more incredible.
The Bucks do not put him in a ton of isolation or high-usage situations even for a 20.9 points-per-game scorer. He is a shooter more than anything else, trailing Giannis Antetokounmpo in transition to drain threes or working out of the mid-post and shooting over smaller shooting guards.
While the Bucks do not use Middleton as much of a creator, he is a devastating offensive option.
That had not been the case throughout this series with the Orlando Magic. They had largely kept Middleton in check. Through three games, Middleton averaged 11.0 points per game. His shooting percentages dropped to 32.4 percent overall, 29.4 percent from deep and 57.1 percent from the foul line.
Want a reason why Orlando was hanging around in this series? Look no further than this sudden drop in production from Middleton.
Want a reason why the Magic lost a hard-fought Game 4 by 15 points? Look no further than Middleton.
Middleton scored 18 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, making six of his 10 shots. He helped key an 18-2 run that proved decisive to open the fourth quarter. The Magic had no answer.
Middleton drained an open 3-pointer early and it was easy to tell something was percolating. The last thing the Magic wanted to see was him making a shot. Then came the mid-range jumper. Then a 3-pointer with a foul as Evan Fournier tried unsuccessfully to crowd his space.
The Bucks finally got Middleton going and it produced devastating results to a plucky Magic team.
As many Magic fans pointed out, this was at least in part due to a tactical error from Steve Clifford. He had James Ennis on the bench for his normal rest to start the fourth quarter. That left Fournier on the floor to defend Middleton.
“Khris Middleton struggled mightily offensively for three-quarters due in large part to the suffocating defense by James Ennis III. However, Middleton was lights out in the fourth quarter…and guess who was on the bench during his hot streak? James Ennis. Khris was torturing Evan Fournier in the fourth quarter by using an array of moves to free him up in the midrange while also making a handful of three-pointers. For as poorly as he played offensively outside of the fourth quarter, he still ended up finishing 21 points and 10 rebounds in 32 minutes. It was encouraging to see Middleton continue to hoist up shots and try to shoot himself out of a slump. It clearly worked in game four.”
According to NBA.com’s statistics database, Middleton is shooting just 1 for 9 with four turnovers in his matchup with Ennis. He is shooting 5 for 14 against Fournier overall in the series.
During the regular season, Middleton was matched up with Fournier more than any player this year (according to how NBA.com measures this) and made only 8 for 18 shots, missing all six 3-pointers.
It is safe to say the Magic have done a good job on Middleton. But it is Ennis’ work that has stood out. Although the numbers suggest Clifford had some reason to trust Fournier at this point in the series.
But that clearly backfired.
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For sure, in Milwaukee’s perspective, seeing Middleton hit shots is a welcome sign. The Bucks have struggled in this series to resemble the regular-season juggernaut. And Middleton’s struggles have been at the center of this.
“Middleton had looked like a shell of himself to start the series, between his inefficient shooting and sloppy handling of the ball that led to many self-inflicted turnovers,” Jordan Treske of Behind the Buck Pass wrote. “Even with the Bucks turning things around in Game 2, Middleton was absolutely quiet with a pair of points and didn’t even look to lift himself out of his shooting funk in the face of the Magic’s pressurized defense.”
The fact he scored 17 points in Game 3 — one more point than he had in the series to that point — was a sign of some progress.
But that progress looked like it had stopped until the fourth quarter. That quarter, of course, changed everything in this series.
Everything with this Bucks team centers on Giannis Antetokounmpo. And so it seems does Middleton’s sudden resurgence.
Eric Nehm of The Athletic reports Antetokounmpo encouraged his teammate to “shoot until his arms fall off” before the fourth quarter. That kind of confidence is not something Middleton always needs. But it is a reminder of how important he is to the team and how he changes the Bucks from a great team with a supernatural player to a championship contender.
Antetokounmpo is still the best player and the center of everything the Bucks do. And another insane performance is only adding to his story.
Antetokounmpo scored 31 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists on 14-for-21 shooting. It was another game that felt like the Magic played good defense only to see Antetokounmpo dominate again.
He is joining elite company.
“Digging deep in the stat books, Giannis joined elite company alongside Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Kevin Garnett as players to average 30 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists across the first three playoff games of a season,” Dalton Sell of Behind the Buck Pass writes. “It might seem like a picky statistic, but it cannot take away from how fantastic Giannis has been.”
The Magic have fought. It is clear they have disrupted and frustrated the Bucks throughout the series.
But with Milwaukee starting to find its rhythm and now riding both of its All-Stars, Orlando’s chances in the series are starting to evaporate.