Through nearly the first six quarters of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Khris Middleton made as much of an impact for the Bucks as counterpart star James Harden made for the Nets.
Of course, Harden re-injured his hamstring in the opening minute of Game 1 and hasn’t played since for Brooklyn.
Looking to bounce back from a wretched offensive performance in the opener, Middleton was hounded by Harden’s replacement, Bruce Brown, into missing his first eight shot attempts Monday night. He didn’t net his first bucket in Game 2 until 2:35 remained in the first half, with his team already trailing by 25 in what ended up being a disastrous 39-point defeat.
Middleton did connect on six shots in a row on either side of intermission, but the two-time All-Star forward finished 7-for-20 from the field, and he’s shooting just 30.2 percent in the series entering Game 3 on Thursday in Milwaukee.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer even pulled Middleton, two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the rest of his starters for nearly all of the fourth quarter – after also doing so late in the opener.
“It doesn’t matter in the playoffs if we finish the game or not,” Middleton said after the game. “They won two games. Just because you lose by 40 doesn’t mean the series was over or they get an extra win because of it. It’s just one game that they won. They’re up 2-0 right now and we gotta find a way to win our first one at home.”
With two days off before Game 3, the Bucks suddenly have plenty of issues to fix at both ends of the floor. Middleton acknowledged he needs “better shot selection,” while point guard Jrue Holiday offered that the Nets’ hot shooting from the start made the Bucks too single-minded at the offensive end.
“Against a team like the Brooklyn Nets, with the scorers that they have and with the defense that they’re playing, we’ve got to be able to do it together, make the right plays, get open shots,” Holiday said. “When a team is hitting shots like that and it just looks like they’re not missing, you just feel like you can put everyone on your shoulders and do it by yourself, and that’s me included.
“I feel like as a team, we have to push the pace, find a good balance, and when we set up our offense, get a good shot and play with the pass. They had damn near 30 assists (27) and we had (14). We have to play for each other a little more … we saw them hitting shots, and we became too selfish.”
Antetokounmpo, who finished the game 8-for-15 from the field for 18 points, acknowledged that he needs to be “more aggressive” and “get to my spots more.”
Of course, Kevin Durant and the Nets had no problem finding theirs at the other end. KD scored 32 points in 33 minutes and the Nets nailed 21 3-pointers, plus a couple of rattling dunks by Blake Griffin.
“They got everything they wanted, whichever way they wanted it,” Middleton said. “Whether it was the drives, the isos, the screens, the extra passes, we have to find a way to eliminate most of those things.
“We have to force them to go where we want them to go instead of them dictating, on the offensive end and the defensive end.”