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Milwaukee’s Blueprint for the Big Three’s Breakout Game Five

Tinker, tinker, tinker

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NBA: Finals-Milwaukee Bucks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

“Big Three” has always been a silly term, albeit a useful way to pool and compare top-end talent among NBA teams. In terms of historical comparisons, the Milwaukee Bucks probably rate out more as a “sizable three,” but the gradations of largeness matter less than the substance behind them. Since the arrival of Jrue Holiday, the $40M dollar man and “Buck for life,” Milwaukee fans have fantasized about Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton having some backcourt scoring punch in the Playoffs to go with their scoring outputs. Finally, Game Five delivered a crossing of the star streams, leading to a dramatic 123-119 gut punch of a win.

Khris and Giannis have years of ingrained history, so find their proper calibration and equilibrium playing off one another is rather natural. Injecting Jrue into the mix required another mouth to feed. Given his defensive output, the fact he can play with such aggression offensively is a feat in and of itself. Still, determining how to mete out possessions, shots and, eventually, play off one another successfully was the bouncing ball Coach Bud balanced upon all season long. How do you get a point guard who prefers not to always play point guard, a streaky midrange artist with passing chops, and an all-time big man who spent years initiating offense without a jump shot to fall back, all to work in tandem?

It doesn’t happen in a single practice, and it’s been a slow but steady evolution to this point. The “Big Three’s” combined total of 88 in Game Five was their fourth highest between the Playoffs and regular season. The curious part is that, in terms of raw scoring totals, Milwaukee got one of their most potent three-headed performances from jump, with the trio combining for 87 points against the Boston Celtics to tip off the regular season. It’s not just about scoring though, it’s about utilizing their full skillsets at the right level to maximize their prime potential. Playoff performances like Game Five have a way of papering over the warts for players like Holiday, but embracing those foibles is what’s made this Milwaukee run such a torturous delight. Every one of this team’s star players has flaws, its coach has a history, its offense looks stagnant at times, and yet, they just keep working through it all to find a way to win.

There was no one blueprint for how these three could be their best selves at once, it came piecemeal over this whole season.

Whatever pop cultural comparisons you wanted to use for Khris Middleton prior to this year, many a Bucks fan recognized his importance as a shot creator late in games for Milwaukee. Giannis may be able to manufacture some offense, but when the defense can batten down the hatches late, those penetrating lanes start to look rail thin. His bruising style can face complications, and Khris offered the antidote as both a proficient and a willing shot creator.

Zoom back to the first matchup with the Brooklyn Nets last season, when Milwaukee fell by two points. Many consider that game the coming out opportunity for Giannis as a screener (Zach Lowe in particular), but the stretch run of that game demonstrated to me was Middleton would always be the man Milwaukee trusts with the ball late. As DeAndre Jordan sagged back time-and-again to prevent the lob, Middleton waltzed into open space and trusted his jumper. For the longtime conductor of the tough shot express, that gap must’ve felt like emerging from a mountain tunnel onto a stretch of open-prairie track. The Bucks lost that game, but it helped once more calcify Middleton’s role as late-game shotmaker.

Flash back to Game Four, and it all came together for the pride of Charleston, SC. His 33 shot attempts in Game Four were a career high, a staggering number for someone of his deferential ilk, but he recognized himself rightly as the player who had to keep trying to deliver. Scoring 14 in the final frame, including 5-9 shooting, this space looks awfully familiar to that pocket Brooklyn provided earlier in the season.

In Game Five, Khris Middleton didn’t get open acres late as Phoenix went claustrophobic on the defensive end. Fortunately, Middleton’s sweet spot is stuck in a tiny elevator. Cooly, he used his height to make up for the mere modicum of breathing space defenders allow him from the midrange. He crossed up Mikal Bridges, stepped back behind the three-point arc and splashed home a crushing triple. For years, he’s toiled with clutch shooting percentages well below his typical figures, but this postseason, he’s delivered when called upon. Let’s update this chart I brought forth back in April:

Middleton Clutch Stats by Season

Season FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3P% FTA
Season FGM FGA FG% 3PM 3PA 3P% FTA
20-21 Postseason 13 31 41.90% 3 10 30% 12
20-21 17 44 38.60% 7 23 30% 20
19-20 11 36 30.60% 7 19 36.80% 14
2018-19 13 37 35.1 9 24 37.5 16
17-18 31 70 44.30% 6 26 23.10% 46

In the regular season, Khris Middleton made 17 field goals in 87 clutch minutes. He’s hit 13 through 43 minutes of clutch postseason play. The percentages won’t pop off the screen, but then again, that’s never been Middleton’s style.

As I mentioned earlier, screener Giannis really began in earnest during that initial Brooklyn contest, a development that’s clearly contributed to his ability to weaponize Milwaukee’s backcourt and his own strength on the interior. In late game situations, it’s also meant he can more deftly do the two-man dance with Khris Middleton as defenders flock to his roll like a dinner bell just rang. And yet, I keep remembering this San Antonio game from partway through the season. It wasn’t all that memorable outside of Lonnie Walker IV going off for a career high (...and Donte took that personally). Giannis had a modest 26 points on just 9-18 shooting, but, Giannis tied a career-high 15 assists.

Within the first few minutes of that Spurs game, he’s got a smaller defender on him in Keldon Johnson (who he could easily truck) and he’s barreling in from his old favorite spot atop the key. DeMar DeRozan follows The Wall script like a trusted stage actor, helping in to show Giannis bodies around the free throw line. One issue: Giannis has read this book already, release the ball a beat quicker than season’s past, and DiVincenzo delivers.

A few other instructive reads from that game:

  • 2nd Q, 4:53: Giannis dribbles up early in shot clock, drives to free throw line, immediately whips one-handed pass across his body to Pat Connaughton who’s ready and waiting to shoot from left wing.
  • 3rd Q, 8:39: Giannis drives from left elbow, goes baseline, Spurs show two bodies, DiVincenzo cuts in from dunker spot and gets dish for layup.
  • 3rd Q, 3:16: Giannis gets a screen from Holiday, hesitates, drives slightly right into the lane, Devin Vassell digs in and Giannis passes immediately to Connaughton in the corner for a three.
  • 4th Q, 7:36: Giannis gets ball on left block from Middleton, spins baseline for a fadeaway jumper, Spurs double, Giannis dishes ball back to Middleton at the height of his release, Middleton clangs home left wing jumper over a cheating-off Derrick White.

The Raptors set the blueprint in 2019, and Giannis did face some struggles in the early going of the Playoffs. He didn’t score effectively against Miami, but he averaged 7.8 assists. After Game Two against Brooklyn, he finally found the right calibration. It’s all culminated in this Finals, where his reading of the game has felt sublime thus far. He’s rarely turning the ball over, his off-ball screening is opening up teammates, and most importantly, he’s discovered another route past the wall by dishing over and around with a little help from his friends. If any of the passing plays I mentioned above sound familiar, they should...

It’s never going to be easy for Jrue Holiday to forget he had COVID-19, but in this topsy-turvy season full of so many players facing these dire circumstances, you’d be forgiven if that fact lapsed from your brain at some point this postseason. He’s never once brought it up as an excuse either, despite the horrific sounding situation he had to endure at home. Regardless, if you’ll recall, we all found out together the Bucks would be without Holiday not long before their February 8th game at the Denver Nuggets. After some up-and-down stretches to start the year, they had won four straight heading into that Mile High contest, and they still came out with a convincing 13-point win.

Following that? Five straight losses, which started with Phoenix and culminated in the nadir of back-to-back losses to the Toronto Raptors. Yuck. Confidence shaken, we all finally got to endure the first of the “Milwaukee sacrificed depth for top-end talent” narrative this year. Finally, the Bucks got back on track against the dregs of the league, winning four straight behind incredible Giannis performances before Holiday returned for the February 28 showdown with the Clippers.

He played just 17 minutes in that game, tossing up a measly five shots and hitting a solo shot. He will never look back on it as the picture-perfect framing of his all-around impact. And yet, he was a +10; a perfect encapsulation of Jrue Holiday. And on the fated play, maybe my favorite sequence of the regular season, Bud left him in there. He dialed up the speed, whirled past Giannis, and was the driving force behind his rim-rattling slam.

You do not get credited for the hockey assist that led to the hockey assist, but between that, his game-winner in Memphis, the Miami finish in the first round and plenty of plays on the margins, Holiday has always found ways to impact the game through whatever shooting struggles he has. That is the difference between him and any other player that’s occupied Milwaukee’s point guard position in the past — he has the Giannis mindset of moving immediately onto the next play. Plays like the above, where he clearly didn’t have it going, he was probably feeling lingering after-effects, and yet, he knew where to go with the ball to deliver a win; that’s what has defined Holiday this Playoffs through all the clanked layups and jumpers.

Coming off his 4-20 game, everyone acknowledged his defensive impact, but it felt like a backhanded compliment at times. Milwaukee brought him here to deliver on both ends after all. So, how would he finally shake off those shooting jitters? Well, by calling forth an instant “all is forgiven” type of performance with 27 points, 13 assists, and three steals, none bigger than what delivered The Oop. Holiday’s assist percentage has leaped from 26.3% in the regular season to 31.3% in the postseason. He’s been their most consistent creator, their finest on-ball defender and a clutch scoring catalyst when it’s counted. All three of those skillsets came together in Game Five, a product of his persistence to keep scraping away until his imprint is left on this series by hook or by crook.

However this Finals ends up, Game Five felt like the culmination of each player’s season-long arc towards cresting at precisely the right moment. It’s easy to let one flashbulb moment blind you from all the good and bad that went into getting here, but we’ve kept watching this triumvirate through it all this season. Getting here wasn’t like flicking a light switch, this was hand-cranking a generator until the bulb finally illuminates. They sure picked a decent time to each shine their brightest.