ATLANTA – Eight Khris Middleton shots, seven Khris Middleton makes.
It happened during a dominant four-minute scoring flurry in the fourth quarter in which the Milwaukee Bucks turned a seven-point deficit into a seven-point lead on the deft shooting touch of their quiet, unassuming star guard.
Middleton scored 20 of a playoff career-high 38 points in the fourth quarter, and the Bucks defeated the Atlanta Hawks, 113-102, in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday.
It was the work of precision artist.
“Greatness,” Bucks All-NBA forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “What I saw today was unbelievable. He was freaking unbelievable. Carried the team at the end.”
Middleton made 15-of-26 shots, including 6-of-12 3-pointers, and had 11 rebounds and seven assists.
He is the only Bucks player?in the past 25 postseasons to score at least 20 points in the fourth quarter.
“It feels good, I will say that,” Middleton said. “Our team is so unselfish, if anybody has it going, the ball goes to them. Some games it’s me, some games it’s Giannis, some games it’s Jrue (Holiday). We all have a great feel about who has it going, who has the best matchup and who can create the best looks. When it’s my turn or my time to have it, I’m thinking the same way: just try to get the best shot up for everybody.”
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In a game with Antetokounmpo going for 33 points and 11 rebounds, Middleton was the best player on the court.
Not bad for a guy who was a second-round pick, traded from Detroit to Milwaukee after his rookie season and developed into an All-Star on a championship-caliber team.
“It’s hard to sometimes understand who catches people’s attention and so on and so forth,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “But he’s a winner, from the day I’ve been around him, he’s done nothing but win. He does all the little things. He’s quiet but his voice is loud in our locker room. His voice is loud in our timeouts. So I think he’s just one of those guys that’s very smooth and just has a way of playing and can score in ways that I think kind of sneak up on people.”
Antetokounmpo has spent his entire career with Middleton, both players joining the franchise in the summer of 2013.
“I told him, ‘Hey, the day you retire, is going to be the toughest day in my career because like I’ve been with you the whole time,’” Antetokounmpo said. “And it’s been an unbelievable journey. It’s great seeing this guy, man, the way we started, the way we are, the way he started and the way that he is right now, just closing games. That’s what we need from Khris. We need him to be aggressive. We need him to be taking over games, make good decisions, and play off him.
Of those fourth-quarter points, Middleton had 15 from the 7:12 of the fourth until 3:08 – each make more deflating for the Hawks than the previous one.
“When a guy gets hot like that, you’d like to basically run a guy at him,” Hawks interim coach Nate McMillan said. “I felt like we were trying to do that one or two times, and before we could even get a guy on him, he had released it. So he was really scoring from everywhere – from the perimeter, in the post and off the dribble. But you would like to get the ball out of his hands in situations like that.”
Middleton said it felt like a normal stretch of basketball, even while making four consecutive shots with three of them 3-pointers.
“Once I realized two in a row, I just told myself to keep trying to find a shot to get up, knowing that I was going to have a good chance of getting it in. That’s all I was thinking at that time,” Middleton said.
Middleton’s final shot put Milwaukee up 112-102, pushing the Bucks to a 2-1 series lead as they begin to emerge as the better team in the series.
Middleton isn’t the Bucks’ best player. He is their best shot-maker. Antetokounmpo can take over a game his own way, but he can’t doing with the outside shooting that Middleton did on Sunday.
“I trust this guy to death,” Antetokounmpo said. “If he wants the ball, he gets it. Simple as that. He’s knocking down shots. Doesn’t matter who is the first guy. Does not matter. … I want to be a winner. I have the whole game to be the guy. I don’t care about being the guy in the fourth quarter. … If Khris asks for the ball, better give him the ball.”