Even in the games the Bucks had won against the Nets in their Eastern Conference semifinal series prior to Game 6, their grasp on any lead felt tenuous, at best. It often seemed as though Milwaukee was just one poor stretch away from letting Brooklyn take control.
In Thursday night’s contest, that feeling — that uneasy, are-they-going-to-blow-it-again feeling — emerged multiple times, but something changed. Or rather, someone changed.
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With the Bucks facing elimination, Khris Middleton delivered his best performance of the postseason, totaling 38 points (11-of-16 shooting from the field), 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in Milwaukee’s 104-89 win. But Middleton’s impact couldn’t be measured by just his stat line, as pretty as it looks. The two-time All-Star also steadied the ship each time the Bucks approached rough waters.
After falling behind by double digits in the first half, the Nets cut the Bucks’ lead to five with two minutes left in the second quarter. Middleton hit two of his five 3-pointers before halftime, giving Milwaukee an 11-point cushion.
Brooklyn once again cut the deficit to five with less than two minutes to go in the third quarter. Middleton responded with two midrange jumpers and a buzzer-beating layup in transition, pushing the lead back to 11.
And finally, when the Nets chopped the lead down to five early in the fourth quarter, Middleton drew a shooting foul on Joe Harris from beyond the arc and hit all three free throws. That sparked a 14-0 Bucks run, effectively ending any chance of a Nets comeback.
“The playoffs are all about adjustments when you go from game to game. We definitely learned that [in Game 5],” Middleton told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt. “We had a little lead here at halftime. We were able to keep that lead and then extend it there in the fourth quarter. They went on a run — we know they’re going to go on runs — but we’ve still got to keep our composure and fight back.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo (30 points, 17 rebounds in Game 6) is unquestionably the Bucks’ best player, but even the two-time MVP knows that Middleton’s skill set can make him a better offensive option in crunch time, especially when he’s as locked in as he was on Thursday.
“Those moments, he loves those moments,” Antetokounmpo said. “He’s going to make the right play. We know that when he feels good, we’ve got to give him the ball. I’ve said it in the past. We’ve just got to play through him, and we knows he’s going to make the right play. He’s never scared of those moments.”
Middleton stepped up when Milwaukee needed him most, but the job isn’t done just yet. The Bucks will now head to Brooklyn for Game 7, and there will almost certainly be more moments when the pressure and intensity increase as both teams battle for a spot in the Eastern Conference finals.
When the shots aren’t falling, when the Nets are surging, when the lead is shrinking, that’s when the Bucks will turn to Middleton to calm them down.