MILWAUKEE — With the seconds winding down in the third quarter, Khris Middleton grabbed a rebound and started a fastbreak the other way. Spotting Giannis Antetokounmpo out ahead of him, he lobbed a pass up to his MVP teammate and kept running right to the rim. That turned out to be a wise decision, as Giannis missed an off-balance shot and the loose ball somehow ended up right in Middleton’s hands for an easy layup to beat the buzzer.
It certainly wasn’t the prettiest buzzer beater you’ll ever see, but it was a huge bucket to push the lead back to double digits and create some momentum heading into the fourth quarter. It was also one of a number of key plays by Middleton at the end of the second and third quarters that helped the Milwaukee Bucks secure a 104-89 win over the Brooklyn Nets in Game 6, and keep their season alive.
“He had a great game with timely possessions,” Jrue Holiday said. “He really carried us through those moments when we needed a lift. He’s done it all year and you know it’s win or go home, and he took it upon himself to go ahead and do that.”
As he has been for much of the series, Middleton was fantastic overall, finishing with 38 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals while shooting 11-for-16 from the field. He set a new playoff career-high in the process, and also became the first player to put up 30/10/5/5 with five 3s in a playoff game in NBA history. But it was the mini runs he went on to close the second and third quarters that really made the difference.
Up by as much as 13 earlier in the second quarter, the Bucks were suddenly clinging to a five-point lead with just over a minute to play in the half. It was easy for memories of Game 5 to start playing in everyone’s head at that point, but Middleton stepped up and settled everything down.
First, the Bucks got a stop and Holiday pushed the ball ahead in transition. He dropped it off to Giannis who whipped a pass out to Middleton for a wide-open 3-pointer that caught nothing but net.
The next time down the floor, Giannis went to work in the mid-range and looked like he was going to shoot a jumper. At the last second, however, he spotted Middleton open on the wing and found him for another huge triple. All of a sudden the Bucks were back up by 11 — which is where their lead would stay going into the break — Pat Connaughton was flexing and the Fiserv Forum crowd was going wild.
“I mean obviously we kind of let him out of the bag tonight,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “We gave up a couple open shots in transition and on offensive rebounds, things like that that get someone going. So we gotta take away some of those situations and just play a little better, a little harder and a little more concentration.”
The Bucks being the Bucks, that positive momentum didn’t last forever. Late in the third quarter, after James Harden hit a few free throws, their lead was once again down to just five points. And, as we’ve seen before, the doubts started to creep in, though not for too long because Middleton was back to save the day.
After an offensive rebound from PJ Tucker, who did just about everything but score in this game, Middleton told Landry Shamet he was too small and took the Nets guard into the post for an easy turnaround jumper.
Then, catching a hit ahead pass from Holiday in semi-transition, Middleton ghosted past Joe Harris for an easy mid-range jumper.
Finally, he got the aforementioned buzzer-beater to go. Another personal 6-0 run, another lead boosted from five points to 11 points at the end of the quarter.
“[We just had to] keep playing,” Middleton said. “We knew they were gonna go on runs, but we have to stay strong during those runs and fight back or attack back. Especially after misses, and we were able to do that.”
When the last few minutes of the fourth quarter rolled around, the game was no longer in the balance and Middleton was on the bench, enjoying a well-earned rest — one of the few he got on the night. There was no need for any more heroics, but you can bet that if there had been, Middleton would have answered the call.
“He loves those moments,” Giannis said. “He’s never scared of those moments. It’s been an amazing eight years now having him next to me because I know in games like this he’s always ready. He’s always going to give his best, everything he has.”