They aren’t known as the Big 3 for 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 come the Bucks’ three stars, conquerors of the Nets’ fabled trio, back to the Valley of The Sun.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday will attempt to outshine the Suns’ starry backcourt of Chris Paul and Devin Booker one more time as Milwaukee rides a Finals momentum wave into Phoenix for Game 5 on Saturday. If they Bucks manage to win, you’ll hear the roars of “The Deer District’’ all the way to Arizona.
Antetokokompo, Middleton and Holiday were the late-game heroes in a theatrical 109-103 comeback in Game 4, which knotted the series at two games apiece. In the final two minutes, Antetokounmpo had an epic block on Deandre Ayton’s alley-oop dunk attempt and Middleton scored 10 straight points. Holiday harassed Paul full-court, hounded him into a nightmarish, turnover-laced contest and made CP3 look all of his 36 years.
“I feel like 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 great mindset in that. Hopefully we are going to keep doing it moving forward.’’
If you think Paul will go down quietly with his first ring on the line, well, he’s not on some of the list of top-5, all-time point guards for nothing.
“We are coming back home, we got to protect home court,’’ Paul said after the Suns flopped in both contests in Milwaukee. “ I hate it, but it’s that simple. We didn’t sweep but one series. This is the Finals. It’s dramatic. We got to protect home court and win the game.’’
The Bucks were among the expected title contenders when the season commenced. The Suns figured to compete for a playoff spot. But Phoenix doesn’t want this sensational Cinderella season to end bitterly after taking a 2-0 Finals lead.
“We’re motivated,’’ said Booker, whose 42-point night in Game 4 went for naught. “We’re embracing this moment. I don’t think at the beginning of the season anybody in this room or anybody in this league expected us to be in the situation that we’re in.’’
Paul’s five turnovers were the lowlight of his 10-point evening in Game 4, but coach Monty Williams is expecting his tiger to return.
“Chris is fine,’’ Williams said. “There’s not a person in our locker room that’s not expecting him to not come out and play really well the next game. But his focus is at a high, high level right now. You’re not going to see Chris have those kinds of games frequently. That’s how I would term it: a blip on the screen.’’
Even in Middleton’s finest hour, Antetokounmpo stole a lot of his spotlight by that one block for the ages. He paid his longtime Brew City partner his due, however, as the Bucks look to win their first title since 1971, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar roamed the paint.
“It’s amazing,’’ Antetokounmpo said. “It’s a lot of hard work that paid off for Khris. I know how great he is. I feel sometimes he doesn’t get appreciated enough. He’s a great freaking player. 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 Suns’ so-called “Wall” defense. But he got more effective on the drive as the contest rolled on and notched eight assists.
“The wall is strong where he has to make 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 with his playmaking or aggressiveness going to the basket. I think he has been great at that.’’
Booker was great, too, in Game 4, despite foul trouble, but he was outdueled by Middleton at the close. Paul must step up Saturday or he may retire without a championship.
“Me turning the ball over is not giving us enough shots at the basket,’’ Paul said. “I’ll figure it out.”