The Bucks’ title defense took a serious hit Thursday. All-Star swingman Khris Middleton will miss at least the next two weeks with an MCL sprain, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Middleton injured his knee in Milwaukee’s Game 2 loss against the Bulls — a series now tied at one game apiece. The injury will keep Middleton out for the rest of the first round. With the conference semifinals starting on May 3 at the latest, if Milwaukee were to advance, Middleton’s availability for the start of that series is also in question. Two weeks from April 21 is May 5.
Middleton played in 66 games during the regular season. He was a member of nine of the Bucks’ ten most-used lineups. Milwaukee’s eighth most-used lineup was the first not to feature Middleton. That group — Jrue Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton, and Grayson Allen — played 50 minutes together, posting a minus-8.0 net rating in that time.
During the regular season, Antetokounmpo and Holiday played 513 minutes together without Middleton, and when doing so, both the team’s offense and defense were slightly worse. Those two still had a robust 7.8 net rating without Middleton, however, a positive sign for Milwaukee moving forward.
Lineup-wise, coach Mike Budenholzer has options to replace Middleton. While he will lose Antetokounmpo’s best pick-and-roll partner, Connaughton and Allen are both shooters who can space the floor for the rest of the offense. Both wings were very effective as catch-and-shoot players during the regular season, which should help Milwaukee’s up-and-down halfcourt offense. With both already in the rotation however, guard Jevon Carter could be called upon to play a little bit more to help offset the minutes void left by Middleton. (Carter has played less than 20 minutes combined this postseason.)
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Defensively, against the Bulls, DeMar DeRozan’s primary defender has been Wes Matthews. While Matthews is a dogged defender, DeRozan went off for 41 points in Game 2. Middleton was a card Budenholzer still had to play in terms of a one-on-one defender to neutralize the Bulls’ best perimeter scorer, and now that option is taken away. Milwaukee can still play a very good defense without Middleton, although Connaughton and Allen are both not as accomplished on that end.
Chicago will now also have an easier time defending Antetokounmpo. Middleton commands one of the team’s best defenders, and his size could have presented issues for the Bulls’ wings. (Chicago was already sticking guard Alex Caruso on Antetokounmpo.) While Connaughton and Allen can’t be ignored on the perimeter, they are also much less of a threat to take the Bulls’ guards one-on-one than Middleton.
For the first round, the degree of difficulty has certainly shot up for the Bucks. Expect Connaughton’s minutes — currently at 20 a night — to shoot up quite a bit, especially when the rotation begins to tighten. The bigger concern may be the second round. If Middleton misses even one game (presumably against the Celtics, who currently hold a 2-0 lead over the Nets), the Bucks are going to be in a tough spot. Both Boston and Brooklyn would pose serious threats to Milwaukee, which hasn’t quite regained the form it had last season. It’s one thing to be down a man against Chicago, which still has a chance in this series! Middleton coming back in two weeks is also not a guarantee; that is only when he will be re-evaluated.
For now, the Bucks showed over a significant sample in the regular season they could thrive without Middleton. But the long-term nature of this injury — and the Bucks not quite looking as sturdy as they have in the past — make Middleton’s absence a genuine concern moving forward. Even if Milwaukee breezes into the second round, it may not have one of its best scorers as the competition ratchets up. For a team whose halfcourt offense can often be an adventure during the playoffs, losing a scorer like Middleton is no small matter.
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