Even in the games the Bucks won against the Nets in their Eastern Conference semifinal streak before Game 6, their grip on any lead seemed tenuous at best. It often seemed like Milwaukee was only at a bad time to let Brooklyn take over.
During Thursday night’s pageant, that feeling – that uneasy feeling, are they going to blow it up again – came up a few times, but something changed. Or rather, someone has changed.
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With the Bucks facing elimination, Khris Middleton put in his best playoff performance, scoring 38 points (11 of 16 shots from the field), 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in the 104-89 win of Milwaukee. But Middleton’s impact couldn’t be measured just by her stats line, pretty as that might sound. The double All-Star also stabilized the ship whenever the Bucks approached rough waters.
After falling behind by double digits in the first half, the Nets reduced 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 again reduced the deficit to five with less than two minutes left in the third quarter. Middleton responded with two midrange jumpers and a transitioning buzzer layup, pushing the lead back to 11.
And finally, when the Nets reduced the lead to five early in the fourth quarter, Middleton fouled Joe Harris over the arc and hit all three free throws. This sparked a 14-0 Bucks run, ending any chance of the Nets coming back.
“The playoffs are adjustments when you move from game to game. We have definitely learned that [in Game 5], ” Middleton told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt. “We had a small lead here at half-time. We were able to hold that lead and then extend it there in the fourth quarter. They started running – we know they’ll run – but we still have to keep our composure and retaliate. “
Giannis Antetokounmpo (30 points, 17 rebounds in Game 6) is arguably the Bucks’ best player, but even the two-time MVP knows Middleton’s skills can make him a better offensive option in times of crisis, especially when he is as stuck as it was on Thursday.
“These moments, he loves these moments,” Antetokounmpo said. “He’s going to make the right play. We know when he feels good we have to give him the ball. I’ve said this in the past. We just have to play through him, and we know he’s gonna do it. the good game. He is never afraid of these moments. “
Middleton stepped in when Milwaukee needed him most, but the job isn’t done yet. The Bucks will now travel to Brooklyn for Game 7, and there will almost certainly be more times when the pressure and intensity builds as the two teams battle for a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals.
When the punches don’t fall, when the Nets explode, when the lead narrows, that’s when the Bucks will look to Middleton to calm them down.