MILWAUKEE — Teams don’t become NBA Finals contenders overnight. The same goes for players developing into All-Stars and league MVPs. Making those kinds of gains, and reaching that kind of rarified air, takes time and pain, sweat and tears.
For Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, the past eight years have seen them turn the Milwaukee Bucks into one of the NBA’s elite teams, and themselves into some of the game’s elite players. And it was the weight of all of those shared experiences that, with Milwaukee’s season on the line Wednesday night, helped the Bucks’ franchise cornerstones save the day.
Behind 40 points from Middleton, including 10 straight points over the final 2:07 to put the Bucks ahead for good, and Antetokounmpo’s unbelievable block of Deandre Ayton at the rim to preserve a two-point lead with 74 seconds to go, Milwaukee survived an instant classic in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, winning 109-103 over the visiting Phoenix Suns to even the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
“They have been here the longest,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said. “They have been through the most together. They have endured the most. They have been criticized for everything they have done here, and they have also got the glory.
“But they know the pressures that comes with that, and they have exceeded all those expectations. For them to be able to perform on each stage, and especially a stage like this, is awesome to see, and I’m blessed to be a part of it.”
“They give us confidence as a team,” Holiday continued, “and they carry us just like they did tonight.”
There wasn’t much for the Bucks, or their fans, to be confident about for much of the game — especially when the Suns opened up a nine-point lead, their biggest of the game, on a Cam Johnson 3-pointer 14 seconds into the fourth quarter.
But after the Bucks slowly reeled the Suns in over the next several minutes — helped, in part, by Suns star Devin Booker getting his fifth foul and being left to cool off after a supernova performance of his own — Antetokounmpo and Middleton carried the Bucks home, and back into the series.
As is often the case, Antetokounmpo’s moment was the more memorable one. With the Bucks leading by two with 1:14 remaining, Booker came off an Ayton screen and flipped a perfect lob pass over the heads of both Antetokounmpo and P.J. Tucker to Ayton, who was flashing to the rim.
When the ball left Booker’s hand, it looked for all the world like Ayton was going to get an easy dunk to tie the game. Instead, Antetokounmpo somehow pivoted, leaped off his left foot — the leg he hyperextended two weeks ago — and launched himself to the rim, getting his massive hand onto the ball and sending the Bucks rushing back the other way with possession and the lead.
“I thought I was going to get dunked on, to be honest with you,” Antetokounmpo said with a smile. “But you know, going down the stretch, just do whatever it takes to win the game. Just put yourself in a position that can win the game.”
His teammates, however, were slightly more effusive in their praise.
“The honest thought that was going through my head was, more or less, kind of like shock and awe when the block happened,” Bucks guard Pat Connaughton said.
“I kind of said, in my opinion, it’s the best block of all time. Obviously, we’re a little biased, and you can talk about the LeBron [James] block [from Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals], as well. But as far as a block where he was covering the pick-and-roll, he had to judge where the pass was, where Ayton was catching it and trying to dunk it, above the box, it’s about as impressive as you can get.”
What Antetokounmpo’s play did, ultimately, was set the stage for Middleton to carry Milwaukee home. After Phoenix forward Jae Crowder made two free throws with 2:30 remaining to give the Suns a 99-97 lead, Middleton scored the next eight points in the game to put it out of reach. His back-to-back midrange jumpers put the Bucks ahead for good. And after both teams scrambled back and forth with the ball, his layup over Booker with 27.2 seconds to go put Milwaukee up 103-99.
That moment left Middleton so exhausted he literally had to be peeled off the ground by his teammates as the Suns called timeout. He then sank four straight free throws to officially put the game out of reach. That made him and Antetokounmpo the third set of teammates — along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson with the Los Angeles Lakers and James and Kyrie Irving with the Cleveland Cavaliers — to each score 40 or more points in games in the same NBA Finals, per ESPN Stats & Information research.
And it was fitting they had this kind of night with Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, the legends who teamed up to deliver Milwaukee its only NBA championship 50 years ago, watching side by side from courtside seats.
“Everybody’s tired,” Middleton said of his mindset in those late-game moments. “Everybody’s banged up. You just have to give it your all and leave it all on the court.
“We can rest and sleep and get treatment after the game. But while that game is being played, there’s no excuses of exhaustion or something is hurt. If you’re hurt, you can’t be out there. But that’s all. Give it your all.”
And for the Bucks, there’s no one who they’d rather see with the ball in their hands in those moments than Middleton.
“I’m proud,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m very proud. But as I’ve said, it comes down to trust. I trust him.
“You know, win or lose, I’m OK with it. Usually, when you’re going down the stretch in a game like this, whatever game you play, you want to take it upon yourself. Win or lose, you’re like, ‘OK, I took a shot, I lost the game, I won the game.'”
“But it comes down to trust,” he continued. “I know [my teammates] are going to make the right play, and I know they are going to deliver the ball when I’m open. But what [Middleton] did tonight was incredible.”
That kind of trust isn’t earned overnight. Since Antetokounmpo was selected with the 15th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft and Middleton was stolen from the Detroit Pistons in a trade a few weeks later, the two of them, and the Bucks, have methodically grown into NBA royalty.
Toronto Raptors, nearly leading the Bucks back from 25 points down.
After that contest, Middleton went to the hospital because he was dehydrated. Antetokounmpo said Monday that was the moment he knew his partnership with Middleton had the chance to be something special.
“Throughout the years, throughout the whole journey with him, I kind of figured it out,” Antetokounmpo said. “We played so many games together. But there was a specific time, I think it was in the playoffs against Toronto. We played at home.
“He wasn’t feeling great. But he played the game, and he gave everything for the team and for us. You know, that’s when I realized, ‘Yeah, that’s the guy I want to be on the line with and go through the journey with.'”
At that point, he and Middleton had just lost their second first-round playoff series together. It would take them another two years before they’d even advance in the postseason for the first time, eventually losing in six games to those same Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals.
Then came last year’s loss to the Miami Heat in the second round — another disappointing end to a season. But those losses, and those experiences, have hardened these Bucks. Those experiences helped Antetokounmpo and Middleton score the tying and winning baskets in the final minute of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on the road in Brooklyn against Kevin Durant and the Nets to escape from that series. They helped Middleton carry the Bucks to the final two wins they needed in the Eastern Conference finals against the Atlanta Hawks while Antetokounmpo was sidelined with that hyperextended left knee.
And on Wednesday night, they helped Milwaukee stay in these NBA Finals and turn them into a best-of-three affair as the series shifts back to Phoenix for Game 5 on Saturday night.
“Feels good,” Antetokounmpo said of winning alongside Middleton. “We’ve done this a lot of times … we’ve closed so many games.
“But closing a game like this in the NBA Finals, obviously it means a lot. It felt good. But we cannot be satisfied.”