During crunch time, Bucks put their trust in Khris Middleton

Published May 24, 2021, 3:00 PMMiguel Flores

The Milwaukee Bucks are comfortable leaning on Khris Middleton to deliver in crucial situations.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is excellent at a lot of basketball things. Built like a Monstar, Giannis runs, dunks, rebounds, defends, steals, blocks, and passes as good as any other player in the league. His unique skill set has won him two MVPs, after all.

No matter how freaky he gets, everything that he doesn't do well has limited his and the Bucks’ potential in the playoffs. As predicted, Game One of Milwaukee's first round series against the Miami Heat turned into a slugfest – fast breaks became precious commodities, possessions were scarce. It was an all around messy game for both sides' stars. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo shot 8-for-37 while Giannis went just 10-for-27.

Still, Milwaukee held the lead for much of the last three minutes of regulation. They were up 99-97 with nine seconds to go, but they could have been up more. During those last three minutes, Giannis went 3-of-6 from the free throw line, including a rare 10-second free throw violation. For how unstoppable Giannis is on the fast break, he looks very mortal when taking charities. Throughout his career, Giannis is a 63 percent free throw shooter in the playoffs. It's hard for any player to be clutch when a team can simply foul him and effectively stifle his potential.

Had Giannis just made one more free throw, maybe the Heat would go for a tough 3 and the Bucks outright win the game. Instead, Butler gets one of his favorite shots – a silky smooth isolation layup – to send the game into overtime.

Luckily, Khris Middleton is cash. During the last two minutes of overtime, Giannis barely touched the ball, but Middleton and key off-season acquisition Jrue Holiday held it down. After a Holiday layup put the Bucks up 107-104, the Heat almost sent it to another overtime after a Goran Dragic triple. The Bucks, with just 20 seconds on the clock, didn't call timeout. They spaced out for Middleton, who rewarded them with a game-winner.

Middleton has been Milwaukee's clutch guy for the last four seasons or since Giannis morphed into an MVP-collecting alien. For everything he's done for Milwaukee, Middleton has always been considered a tweener – in between a star and a great role player. When the Bucks re-signed him in the 2019 off-season, pundits questioned the move. Maybe Giannis needs a bigger star beside him.

But the few things Giannis struggles with, Middleton excels at: the free throws, the shot creation, the 3-point shooting. Think of it as a Shaq-Kobe lite situation. The three-peat Lakers steamrolled most of their competition with Shaq's sheer dominance. But when games came down to the last few possessions, Kobe took most of the big shots.

This isn't anything new for Middleton. He's already had several clutch moments in the playoffs. It's going to be tough for Giannis to all of a sudden develop a shooting stroke, but he does still find ways to be effective in big moments, even if he doesn't take the shot. His hustle and defense were key to grounding the Heat’s two best players.

It was only Game One of the postseason. There will inevitably be more close games in this series and later in the playoffs, if the Bucks advance. When those times come, will Middleton be enough to save the Bucks?