The Milwaukee Bucks have been rallying in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of their first-round collection in opposition to the Chicago Bulls when a driving lane opened up for ahead Khris Middleton.

Middleton made a beeline towards the rim earlier than Bulls middle Nikola Vucevic stepped in entrance of the basket. Middleton tried to spin away, however his left knee buckled as he fell to the courtroom. Middleton tried to stroll it off, however as soon as he exited the sport and headed towards the locker room, the workforce dominated him out for the evening.

Middleton was recognized the subsequent day with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. He missed the first spherical and is predicted to miss the entirety of the second spherical in opposition to the Boston Celtics, a collection that’s tied at 1-1 heading into Saturday’s Game 3 (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC).

Middleton’s absence poses one in every of the largest challenges to the Bucks of their title protection.

The Bucks are 6-1 in the playoffs over the previous two seasons when one in every of their Big Three — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday — is sidelined. But this spherical in opposition to the Celtics marks the first time they’ve entered a playoff collection with an expectation to play short-handed.

Still, the Bucks’ aim stays the similar: Bring a second consecutive Larry O’Brien Trophy residence to Milwaukee.

“We did it final yr as a group when Giannis went down [in the conference finals against the Atlanta Hawks],” Middleton stated earlier than a workforce apply a few days following the damage. “Everybody stepped up and performed a main half. I anticipate nothing much less.”

If the Bucks wrestle to exchange Middleton’s manufacturing, it is extra possible than not that they’re going to see their season come to an finish early. But that is removed from the solely key to elevating one other banner. Here are three different essential areas of focus, as well as to stepping up in Middleton’s absence, that may drive the Bucks’ street to success.

Giannis evolves once more

Antetokounmpo offered an instance of the sort of dominance that led him to win consecutive MVP awards in back-to-back street wins in opposition to the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets to shut out the common season.

To beat the Sixers in Philadelphia, Antetokounmpo collected 40 factors, 14 rebounds, 6 assists and three blocks, together with the game-saving rejection on a Joel Embiid layup try that might have despatched the sport to additional time. In Brooklyn two nights later, Antetokounmpo completed with 44 factors, 14 rebounds and 6 assists. He hit a 3-pointer with 18 seconds left in regulation to power additional time, then drained two free throws with three seconds left in additional time to seal a one-point win in opposition to the Nets.

“If he can carry you want that,” an Eastern Conference scout advised ESPN, “I’m undecided the rest issues.”

Antetokounmpo put up a career-high 29.9 factors this season, which marked the fourth straight yr he averaged at the very least 25 factors, 10 rebounds and 5 assists, the most such seasons by any participant in NBA historical past. He posted the highest discipline aim proportion (61%) in the league amongst these gamers, in accordance to Second Spectrum.

“He simply has that go mode the place he is ready to carry a massive a part of the offensive load for lengthy stretches,” Bucks guard Grayson Allen stated. “Even if he isn’t scoring, it is operating via him and he is the one creating alternatives for different guys. It’s spectacular he is ready to preserve that up for a lengthy sport and nonetheless get blocks and be energetic on the defensive finish.”

But after winning his first championship, the reigning Finals MVP returned much more harmful this season, with enhancements to the few weaknesses in his sport. Antetokounmpo made 72% of his free throws throughout the common season, his highest price since 2018-19, whereas making an attempt a career-high 11.4 free throws per sport. He shot 77% from the line in the closing three video games of the first spherical, however has slumped a bit in opposition to Boston, making 55% via two video games.

Antetokounmpo additionally shot 36.1% on jumpers, the highest single-season price of his profession, in accordance to Second Spectrum monitoring. He continues to develop extra comfy in the midrange, taking 16.5% of his photographs from there (up from 13% final season and 9.4% in 2019-20).

The celebrity energy ahead additionally is aware of how to beat a double-team and create wide-open appears to be like from 3 for his teammates. Antetokounmpo has assisted on 30 3-pointers throughout this postseason, the second most of any participant (Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant has 32), and 22 of these 3s have been uncontested (most of any participant). In Game 1 in opposition to the Celtics, Antetokounmpo made 12 assists and posted the second postseason triple-double of his profession.

“You preserve considering you are seeing a Giannis who’s sort of scraping the ceiling, scraping the potential of what a man can do. Then he comes again subsequent yr and he simply does extra,” Bucks middle Brook Lopez stated.

“I’ve realized to sort of cease being like, ‘Wow, he does all the things,’ as a result of there’s all the time one thing else he provides to all the things. It’s fairly infinite. It’s cool and all of it comes down to work ethic.”

Reclaiming a defensive id

The Bucks have been a median protection throughout the common season, ending 14th in defensive ranking, which often foretells the finish in the playoffs. No workforce ranked that low in defensive effectivity has received the title since the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers. That workforce, broadly considered the final “switch-flipping” workforce in NBA historical past, turned up the depth in the postseason, main all groups in defensive effectivity en route to a 15-1 run and a second consecutive title.

The Bucks have already misplaced as soon as in every collection and will not go unbeaten till the Finals. But like that 2001 Lakers workforce, they’ve demonstrated a capability to ramp up the protection when it counts.

“We gotta play protection to win,” Antetokounmpo stated following Milwaukee’s victory over Atlanta in Game 5. “We do not know what number of factors we’re going to rating with Khris, one in every of our greatest scorers being out, however we gotta make it as arduous as attainable.

“We may rating 90 factors, however we’d defend them and so they can rating 80.”

In their first three seasons beneath coach Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks by no means completed decrease than ninth in defensive ranking. Last season, they have been the finest protection in the playoffs en route to the championship.

The Bucks actually seemed the half in the first spherical. They smothered the Bulls into 94.4 factors per 100 possessions, by far the finest defensive effectivity in the playoffs, whereas neutralizing Bulls star DeMar DeRozan, who shot 34% from the discipline in the first spherical. That development continued in the second spherical when the Bucks held the Celtics to 89 factors on 33.3% taking pictures in Game 1, earlier than Boston caught hearth in Game 2. The Bucks’ 96.8 factors allowed per 100 possessions this postseason is greater than 6 factors higher than the next-best workforce (Miami Heat, 103.0) and can be the finest defensive ranking for a playoff workforce in additional than a decade.

“We’ve been superb defensively for 3 years,” Budenholzer stated as the playoffs started. “There’s a lot of excellent particular person defenders, guys who simply have that God-given expertise, knack, focus. We simply want to put it collectively. “

The return of Brook Lopez

A “Welcome Back” banner that includes Tigger from Winnie the Pooh hung from the Bucks’ coaching room on March 14.

Lopez had began the first sport of the season earlier than lacking the subsequent 5 months due to surgical procedure to restore a bulging disk in his decrease again. The private coaching workers that helped information him via rehab decked out the room along with his favourite Disney character.

“I’m so glad to be hooping with my guys once more,” Lopez stated a few days after his return. “I missed that a lot, the camaraderie on the bench, on the ground, and locker room and all that. And I really feel nice.”

Even although he was restricted to 13 video games throughout the season, Lopez returned as the similar rim protector who serves as the final line of Milwaukee’s protection.

Since his return on March 14, Lopez held opponents to 39.5% taking pictures at the rim, the lowest discipline aim proportion amongst gamers who defended at the very least 40 photographs at the rim, per Second Spectrum. The Bulls shot 37% from the discipline throughout the first spherical. He has blocked three photographs in every of the first two video games in opposition to Boston.

“It’s simply loopy to me that folks overlook him,” Holiday stated. “Even final yr, individuals neglected Brook, the place in Game [5] of the Atlanta collection, he had like 30 [with Antetokounmpo sidelined]. He was dunking on everyone. But I do assume individuals noticed this yr, with out Brook, how a lot he means to our workforce, particularly on the defensive finish.”

Making up for Middleton

Even although he watched the NBA Finals final summer time from his sofa, Wesley Matthews felt a connection to the Bucks’ championship success.

Matthews was on the roster the earlier season in 2019-20 — on a Bucks squad that got here up quick in the bubble — however he additionally grew up in Wisconsin and performed in faculty at Marquette. So when a possibility arose to rejoin the workforce 23 video games into the season, Matthews was prepared to play.

He signed with the Bucks on Dec. 3, got here off the bench the subsequent day and has made his approach again into Milwaukee’s beginning lineup, as soon as once more tasked with the job of guarding the opposing workforce’s finest participant.

“I want my grandmother was right here to see it,” Matthews, whose grandmother, Madeline Gaines, died earlier in the season, stated earlier than the playoffs started. “That was one in every of the large issues for me. Why I wished to come again and why I fought so arduous to come again on this league is for her to watch me once more, to be in the playoffs and compete for a championship.”

The Bucks spent the offseason making an attempt to discover a alternative for P.J. Tucker from final yr’s playoff roster, however they may have discovered their reply in a participant who was sitting at residence for the first two months of the season.

However, Matthews is not the solely participant being counted on to step up in Middleton’s absence. To shut out the first spherical, Bobby Portis moved into the beginning lineup and Allen caught hearth taking pictures from 3 in opposition to Chicago (58.3%) to make up for some manufacturing offensively, whereas Matthews and Holiday hounded the Bulls defensively. Matthews was the most frequent major defender on the workforce in opposition to DeRozan, in accordance to analysis from ESPN Stats & Information, holding him to simply 36% taking pictures. And the Bulls had no reply for Holiday’s protection, taking pictures 29% with him as the major defender.

“Khris clearly is a enormous a part of what we do, however we’ve a lot of gifted guys on our workforce,” Lopez stated. “We’re going to see a lot of various guys, I believe, stepping up on completely different nights.”

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