Khris Middleton took the pass from Donte DiVincenzo and slammed it home, cutting the Milwaukee Bucks‘ deficit to six points with 44 seconds left. The Phoenix Suns would go on to win, handing the Bucks the second of three consecutive losses.
No one knew it at the time, but it would be the last shot Middleton would take for a while.
He sat out the next night in Denver and two nights later came the stunning news that the NBA season was being suspended — and with it, so was Middleton’s quest for history.
When the NBA season was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, Middleton was one made basket from a historic stat line. The All-Star was averaging 21.2 points while shooting 49.88% from the field, 41.8% from 3-point range and 90.8% from the free throw line.
“I’ve never been on pace for 50/40/90. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to be, that’s just an elite scorer and elite shooter with those type numbers and efficiency,” Middleton told ESPN. “If we get back to the season, I’ll just try to continue what I’m doing. I’m not going to pressure myself to keep that type of goal or record, I just need to go out there and just do what I need to do to help this team win.”
If Middleton can raise his overall shooting percentage by two one-thousandths of a point when the NBA season resumes, he’ll join elite company. The only players to shoot 50/40/90 while averaging better than 20 points are Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitzki and Larry Bird, who did it twice. All four of them have at least one MVP trophy.
Middleton does not. No one expects him to add one any time soon — Bucks teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo is the front-runner to repeat as MVP. Middleton says he doesn’t mind being left out of discussions of the league’s best players, but the slights do motivate him. And he’ll keep working, not to quiet his doubters, but to support his teammates, who — if and when the season resumes — will be trying to get Milwaukee into the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974.
“For the most part, I’ve always found ways to keep myself humble and keep myself motivated to continue to work as hard as I can,” Middleton said. “It’s easy to do that with the guys that’s in that gym with me every night.”
Middleton is a private person who avoids the spotlight. Despite earning his second consecutive All-Star nod and the historic numbers, Middleton still isn’t seen as a star by the public. His low-key demeanor, on and off the court, is part of the reason.
“I’ve grown to appreciate how steady he is and how he plays and how subtle his game is, both defensively and offensively,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He’s a heck of a player that sometimes I think is underappreciated.”
George Hill called him “one of the best teammates I’ve had.”
Wesley Matthews said “Khris is a huge part of what we do. He makes big plays, big shots.”
Although Middleton doesn’t get the credit Antetokounmpo does, the Bucks appreciate him.
“He ain’t underrated,” Hill said, jokingly. “You see that contract he just got?”
Middleton signed a five-year, $178 million deal before the season, solidifying the Bucks’ belief that he could be the second star they need alongside Antetokounmpo. And he has done nothing to make them doubt their decision.
On Jan. 28, the Bucks hosted the Washington Wizards. Antetokounmpo was out with a right shoulder injury, just the fourth time he’d missed a game all season. Playing without the reigning MVP, Middleton had a career night, finishing with 51 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists in the Bucks’ 151-131 victory.
It’s a performance he has rewatched.
“I have. I won’t lie,” Middleton said, laughing. “Just how aggressive I was that whole night and how I got off to a great start with the 3-ball and then that just led me to open up my game in so many different ways.”
Middleton’s aggressiveness has helped the Bucks be successful even when Antetokounmpo is out. Before the three-game skid that preceded the league’s hiatus, Milwaukee had been 5-1 without their MVP in the lineup. Middleton averaged better than 27 points in those six appearances.
Even in the midst of a work stoppage, Middleton remains optimistic the NBA will return this season.
He is in contact with his Bucks teammates in a daily group chat and sees this break as a way for his teammates to fully heal before returning to win a title.
“I think guys are starting to realize that we miss each other, just miss it,” Middleton said. “With this being during the season, we’re used to being around on the plane rides, in the locker room, on the buses and then on the game floor with how much we used to talk.”
The Bucks’ quest to become the third team to win 70 games ended just before the NBA suspended play, as they lost three straight regular-season games for the first time under Budenholzer. Still, even without that milestone, Middleton would prefer to resume the season in some format before diving into the playoffs.
“You always watch the first couple games of the preseason and regular season then you watch towards the middle of the season or the end of the season and it’s totally different basketball,” he said. “Guys get their legs up under them and are in much better shape.”
While self-quarantining, Middleton remains active with in-home workouts. He put a treadmill inside his suburban Milwaukee house a couple of months ago. That’s now the centerpiece of the workout area that was once his bedroom. Middleton runs and lifts weights, hoping to stay sharp.
“It’s still about every other day just to stay in shape, but not kill myself because we don’t know how long this thing is going to last,” Middleton said. “I hope we get to get back on that court to finish the season some way, somehow, but with everything the NBA is saying, they’re trying to do everything possible to make sure this season doesn’t go to waste for anybody.”