Why Bucks' Middleton must show out in the NBA's restart
Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton is somewhere in between being an All-Star, someone who can be counted in the regular season, and a bonafide No. 2 option -- someone who has proven themselves in the playoffs.
As the NBA prepares for its restart, the Bucks are the league's elite. With Giannis Antetokounmpo the star, they have the top record.
Middleton is having his best year. He's averaging a career-high 21.1 points per game, grabbing a career-high 6.2 rebounds a game and shooting a career-best 49.9% from the field.
But as a two-time All-Star, he has much to prove -- especially in the postseason. Middleton had a mediocre showing in the 2019 playoffs, scoring 16.9 points per game, grabbing 6.3 rebounds and shooting 41.8% from the field.
Though his 3-point percentage was good at 43.5%, his efficiency from the floor was not ideal.
Middleton has made his bread on efficiency, shooting 45.8% from the field for his career. With Middleton not being a sound scorer in last year's playoffs, he was borderline ineffective as Antetokounmpo's sidekick.
A quality defender, Middleton does help on that end of the floor. But for the Bucks to win a championship, Middleton has to live up to the five-year, $178 million deal he signed last summer.
And he has to do so by being a consistent bucket-getter.
He's capable of doing it, too. The Bucks didn't make it past the first round in the 2018 playoffs, losing in seven games to the Boston Celtics.
But Middleton shined in the series. He scored 24.7 points per game, not too far behind Antetokounmpo, who led Milwaukee with 25.7 points a game. Middleton also shot 59.8% from the field and 61.0% from the 3-point line on 5.9 attempts a game.
Though the Bucks were the league's top team last season, they ran into Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors during the Eastern Conference Finals.
That was where Middleton truly faltered.
Middleton rose to his billing as a No. 2 scorer only once during the series. It was Game 4, and he dropped 30 points, grabbed six rebounds and dished seven assists. He shot 73.3% from the field and 57.1% from the 3-point line. The Bucks lost 120-102.
But aside from that game, Middleton didn't score 15 or more points any other time. He scored 13.7 points per game and shot 41.1% from the field. His 3-point percentage remained high at 37.5%, but it was all for nothing.
Leonard had a phenomenal series, averaging 29.8 points a game on 44.2% shooting. Also, Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry starred in their roles as the Raptors won in six games.
Teams are going to try their best to load the paint against Antetokounmpo in the playoffs. Applying Jordan Rules-like defensive techniques is one of the best ways to stop him since many of his points come in and around the paint.
Because of that, the perimeter will be open, and Middleton will have countless opportunities to flourish. He'll have a chance to make that leap from being a run-of-the-mill All-Star to being a trusted playoff performer.
And if he does make that jump, then it could change the perception of his value for the better.