Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is the focal point of the Bucks’ attack, but Khris Middleton was the closer for Milwaukee on Saturday in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Miami Heat.
Middleton drained a contested, game-winning fadeaway jumper with less than a second remaining in overtime, lifting the Bucks to a 109-107 victory at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.
“I just wanted to get to a spot where I knew I could possibly or [Brook Lopez] for a roll,” Middleton said. “I ended up getting to the spot for a shot, so just raise up and just shoot it. I got to get the last one, taking as much time off the clock as I can, and I can live with the results afterwards.”
The result of the 19-footer was vindication for Middleton, who had struggled in overtime. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer opted against calling a timeout, not allowing Miami to make any defensive substitutions and empowering Middleton to orchestrate the possession after Heat guard Goran Dragic tied the score on a jumper with 20.6 seconds left. Middleton had missed all three of his previous attempts — including an air ball — and one of two free throws.
“It just shows the trust that we all have in one another,” Middleton said. “We execute our sets and everyone gets to their spots and get the best shot out of it. We work on that all the time during our practices, and it finally came true.”
Middleton finished with a game-high 27 points on 10-for-22 shooting from the field, six rebounds and a team-high six assists.
The first-round series is a rematch of last year’s conference semifinals, which Miami won 4-1 in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida. It was a devastating result for a Bucks team that compiled the league’s best record during the regular season. In that series, the Heat contained Antetokounmpo with a defensive scheme that became known in NBA parlance as “The Wall” — situating multiple defenders across the court to limit Antetokounmpo’s incursions into the paint.
With Milwaukee trailing 3-0 in that series, Antetokounmpo suffered a right ankle injury early in the second quarter of Game 4 and was sidelined for the rest of the series. Middleton willed the Bucks to a win in that game for their only victory of the series.
On Saturday, Antetokounmpo was productive, if imperfect. He shot 0-for-14 outside the restricted area and 6-for-13 from the foul line. Despite a diet of high-percentage shots — his projected effective field goal percentage was 65.1% — he posted an effective field goal percentage of only 37, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. He was also whistled for a 10-second violation on the foul line with 1:06 remaining in regulation and the Bucks leading by a point.
Antetokounmpo was impactful nevertheless, wreaking havoc both in transition and in the interior. He gobbled up 18 rebounds, six of them on the offensive glass, and converted 10 of his 14 attempts at close range. The Heat decided against erecting The Wall to contain Antetokounmpo, with the exception of one instance, and double-teamed him on only eight possessions.
The principal stars in Game 1 of the first-round series — Antetokounmpo and Heat wingman Jimmy Butler — suffered injuries inside of six minutes in the fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo jammed his left elbow fighting through a perimeter screen by Heat big man Bam Adebayo. On the same possession, Butler took a spill to the floor after driving through traffic. In the game’s final minute, Butler again hit the floor on a drive when he was fouled by Lopez.
Both players remained in the game, though Antetokounmpo appeared to experience ill effects in the moments that followed, having difficulty extending his left arm. On the sideline during the ensuing timeout, the Bucks’ medical staff examined Antetokounmpo, who cautiously flexed his arm, and iced the elbow. When he returned to the game, Antetokounmpo was wearing a compression sleeve.
Following the game, Antetokounmpo deflected questions about his condition.
“I feel good,” Antetokounmpo said. “The elbow is good.”
Budenholzer added that the Bucks are “hopeful that it’s nothing.”
The collision between Antetokounmpo and Adebayo was emblematic of a bruising, physical affair in which neither team topped the 1.00 points-per-possession mark, the Mendoza Line of sorts for NBA offenses. The only players in the game who shot better than 50 percent from the field were Heat guards Duncan Robinson (24 points on 7-for-13 shooting) and Dragic (25 points on 10-for-17), as well as Bucks backup big man Bobby Portis (4-for-6).
Yet in the final seconds, Middleton rose from the offensive morass to hit a shot that allowed the Bucks to equal their win total from last season’s conference semifinal series.
“That’s what he does,” Antetokounmpo said. “Having a guy like Khris with the ball down the stretch, you know what’s going to come.”