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Bucks' Khris Middleton takes center stage in Game 4 vs. Suns to even NBA Finals at 2-2

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MILWAUKEE — Scott Spinelli, then an assistant coach at Texas A&M, had a long day of watching AAU basketball in 2008 in Akron, Ohio.

But a coaching friend talked him into watching one more game.

"We had just talked about recruiting needs at Texas A&M, and there he was, Khris Middleton," Spinelli told USA TODAY Sports. "He was long, lanky, and had great skills with a tremendous shooting stroke, and you could see right there in warmups, he stood out to me.

"Watching him play that day, I saw how he was impacting the game. One thing that’s never changed about Khris is his desire to win. He makes the right play for his team with the ultimate goal and that is to win. If it means not scoring as many points, so be it."

Or, if it means scoring as many points as necessary, so be it.

Middleton scored a playoff career-high 40 points in Milwaukee’s dramatic 109-103 victory over Phoenix in Game 4 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday, tying the series at 2-2.

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He attempted a playoff career-high 33 shots and made 15, including 3-for-8 on 3-pointers. He was also 7-for-8 from the foul line and made four consecutive free throws with less than 21 seconds left in the game.

"I don't count shots," Middleton said. "I just try to let the game come to me, the shots that I have to take no matter what, no matter how many times I shoot in a minute, no matter how many times I miss, that's just the way I play the game. I don't realize any stats or shots or points really until the end of the game."

The Bucks needed every bit of Middleton’s offense in a game that had Devin Booker scoring 42 points and the Suns leading for most of the second half.

In the game-deciding stretch in the final 2:07, Middleton took over, scoring 10 of Milwaukee’s final 12 points, including 10 consecutive.

His 15-foot jump shot tied the score at 97-97. His 19-foot jumper followed by a layup put the Bucks ahead 103-99, and two free throws at 20.8 seconds to go and two more at 7.3 left pushed Milwaukee’s lead to 107-101.

"I kept communicating to him that there were things that we could do to get him wide open, to get him to the elbow jump shot, to get him turning the corner, because usually they are helping a lot when he's turning the corner," Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said. "But that's what he does down the stretch. We want him to have the ball. We want him to be the decision maker. We know he's going to take big shots, and tonight he was incredible."

Khris Middleton set a playoff career-high with 40 points to help the Bucks overcome 42 from Devin Booker.
Khris Middleton set a playoff career-high with 40 points to help the Bucks overcome 42 from Devin Booker.

Middleton had 24 points in the seconds half, including 14 in the fourth quarter, and also had six rebounds, four assists and two steals in 43 minutes.

This isn’t new for Middleton, it just might be new to those who don’t follow the Bucks or the NBA closely. He’s a two-time All-Star who signed a five-year, $177 million contract in the summer of 2019 to stay with Milwaukee.

And through a trove of analytical data and scouting reports, he is the guy the Bucks wanted to pair with Antetokounmpo to help bring the franchise a championship.

In the Eastern Conference finals, he dropped 38 against Atlanta, helping the Bucks to a 2-1 series lead. With Antetokounmpo out for Games 5 and 6 with a hyperextended left knee, Middleton scored 26 and 32 points.

In the first two games of the Finals, he struggled with his shot, and the Bucks were outscored by 26 points with him on the floor. He was better in Game 3 and outstanding in Game 4.

He looked for his shot early, and by halftime, he had 15 attempts. When did Bucks reserve Pat Connaughton know it was a Middleton night?

"It’s always a Khris Middleton kind of night," he said. "He makes the right plays. Tonight it called for him to be more aggressive with a jump shot, but he's always going to be aggressive. ...

"You know, tonight was one of those nights that Khris took over and it's great and we're happy to have him on our side as opposed to anything else. I'm just thrilled that he's been able to kind of show the world it because we see it every single day."

Middleton rarely shows emotion on the court or in the media interview room. He plays it straight, rarely veering out of that lane. He embodies the never too high, never too low cliché.

"As far as the limelight, whatever, I really don't care about it too much," he said. "I just like doing my thing, being around my teammates. Whatever my teammates think of me, that's what means the most. I love to talk to them, hang out with them some. As far as being all over the place on magazines, being on commercials, being interviewed all the time, that's just not me. I like staying lowkey, I like staying out of the way. That's who I am."

But that doesn’t mean there’s not a competitive desire. Spinelli saw it.

"He does have a huge fire in his belly, it’s not just as outward as some other players express in their animation," he said. "Believe me, he’s got a passion and fire burning that is as intense as anyone. Sometimes with his unassuming personality, it can be mistaken as, 'He is tough enough?' He’s plenty tough physically and mentally, and he’s always been that tough."

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bucks' Khris Middleton takes center stage to even NBA Finals at 2-2