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Why Khris Middleton is the NBA’s most important non-superstar

Middleton is a major key to the Bucks’ playoff hopes.

Khris Middleton on the court for the Bucks.
Khris Middleton is the key for Milwaukee’s playoff hopes.

As the saying — that I’m about to make up — goes: In the NBA playoffs, irreversible reputations are forged by the slimmest margins. No matter how bad or good a player has looked, sometimes all it takes to either change or fossilize how they’re perceived from that moment on is one shot, rebound, pass, or stop.

The most recent example came in the very final second of the Eastern Conference semifinals, when Kawhi Leonard’s hold-your-breath-and-hug-the-children dagger was immediately preserved in NBA lore. After the Toronto Raptors won the championship, it became a defining moment for that franchise and its superstar mercenary.

But shots that don’t go in are just as important, even if most are forgotten once the next game begins. Khris Middleton took one in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, a grueling battle tucked inside what already feels like the most informative and overlooked series from last year’s playoffs. In the moment, this shot wasn’t as important as it feels watching it today, but with Milwaukee up 2-0 and Kawhi seemingly on fumes, the stakes didn’t feel that high. Here it is:

The Bucks had 10 seconds on the clock, two timeouts remaining, and no real advantage in transition when Middleton rose for that well-contested go-ahead three — somehow his first “clutch” shot (occurring in the final five minutes with the scoring margin five points or fewer) of the playoffs.

Now, even though this particular game went into double-overtime — and Middleton put back his own blocked layup to force extra time — imagine how different history would look had it gone in. The Raptors call time and have about nine seconds to erase a one-point deficit, but Milwaukee’s odds to jump ahead 3-0 increase significantly. And assuming they close it out, then comes a trip to the NBA Finals against a proud defending champion on its last legs.

As difficult as it was, Middleton hits shots like this in his sleep. He’s become a paragon of calm, currently on the cusp of a metronomic 50/40/90 season, velvet-robing his way through Milwaukee’s ideal offensive arrangement. Inside it, there’s fair reason to see Middleton as an overqualified complementary piece. He nibbles on the exact same advantages that were constructed with Giannis Antetokounmpo in mind, from the five-out approach, to the gravity-prompting supporting cast, to the obsession with rim protection instilled by Mike Budenholzer’s defensive philosophy. (When Middleton is on the floor without Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have the best offense in the league by a wide margin.)

He makes threes, spaces the floor, runs a few pick-and-rolls, take advantage of iso-mismatches, and, on occasion, makes an impossible baseline fallaway feel inevitable. But the rest of that series against Toronto exposed what Middleton can’t do, and foreshadowed his importance to a Bucks team that may need more from its second-best player come the spring.

I went back and watched every one of Middleton’s shots during last year’s playoffs. For the most part, he was sensational, particularly from beyond the arc. Nearly half his shots were threes and 43.5 percent went in. Comfortable and carefree, flicking the ball up whether in a crowd, staring down a hard closeout, or all alone.

But for all the skill and craft and technical precision that makes Middleton such a tough cover, everything he couldn’t do stood out as well. Elite athleticism and/or physicality are two vital characteristics for players who want to dominate the NBA playoffs. Every single one of the league’s superstars — except Steph Curry — has them. Middleton does not.

He’s never been effective around the basket because once he gets there all his advantages held on the perimeter evaporate. Eight feet and in, he only made five shots during the Eastern Conference Finals. Throughout the entire playoffs, he nearly took twice as many long twos as shots at the rim.

Credit a great defensive team for wearing the Bucks down, but Middleton can’t rely on these looks if/when Milwaukee gets that deep again.

Milwaukee’s system hides Middleton from any of this mattering during the regular season, where he looks like a genuine All-Star. But in the postseason, when paint touches get reduced for everybody else and the difficult shots he spent the whole year dining out on stop dropping, Middleton shrivels into a role-player, albeit one who’s inescapably integral.

The Bucks love to play fast and free, but those conference finals were combat in the mud, played at a 96.8 pace with Middleton on the court. Slowing the Bucks down is much easier said than done — there’s no shutting down someone like Antetokounmpo, and Milwaukee’s supplementary pieces work in beautiful concert even when they don’t have a go-to scorer on the floor — but Middleton’s shot making against teams that force them to operate in the half-court will be even more critical than it was last year, when Malcolm Brogdon’s frontcourt touches were higher despite averaging six fewer minutes in the conference finals.

As disciplined teams like the Sixers, Celtics, Raptors, and Heat wrap their gameplan around stifling Antetokounmpo in the open court, Middleton will have chances to capitalize. What that really means is he’ll have chances to hit difficult shots against athletically superior defenders.

In a league populated by dynamic duos and expensive ensembles, Middleton’s own margin for error is slimmer than every other second option. He’s very good, but not Paul George, Anthony Davis, or even Russell Westbrook. He can’t muscle his way to the free-throw line or command the attention of multiple defenders when he puts it on the deck.

For better or worse, this makes him the NBA’s most important non-superstar. Put another way, his impact on the season’s big-picture end game is greater than anyone who can’t routinely rack up All-NBA designations should have. How he, and the Bucks, cope with that reality may determine whether or not they’re the last team standing.