Finding extra production didn’t end up being a problem as six different Bucks put together double-digit scoring performances, including three 20-point performances from Jevon Carter, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton, in a 134-123 win over the Magic. Carter was spectacular with 24 points (4-of-5 3-point shooting) and five assists as the starting point guard for the night, but Lopez and Middleton stole the show in Orlando.
Let’s take a closer look at their achievements.
Middleton looks like herself again
Since returning on Jan. 23 after missing 18 straight games with right knee soreness, Middleton’s minutes have been limited.
Before Tuesday’s game, he had appeared in 14 of the Bucks’ 18 games since Jan. 23, missing the second game of all three of the Bucks’ back-to-backs as well as the Bucks’ final game before the All-Star Break. In those 14 games, Middleton never played more than 27 minutes and played less than 20 minutes in seven of them, all while coming off the bench.
With Antetokounmpo and Holiday out, Middleton entered the starting lineup for the first time since Dec. 15, the final game of his first comeback of the season. He looked a lot like the three-time All-Star he had been before missing half of this season with injuries. Middleton finished the night with 24 points, four rebounds and 11 assists in 30 minutes.
To start the game, the Bucks leaned on Middleton’s ability to make plays for himself and others, and he quickly rewarded Mike Budenholzer’s decision.
Middleton assisted on three of the Bucks’ first four buckets, including this beauty to Lopez. Coming off the double screen from Lopez and Bobby Portis, the Bucks’ veteran forward perfectly read Lopez’s slip by lobbing a lob over the two Magic defenders who had given Middleton their full attention.
After getting his teammates going, Middleton rattled off seven quick points on 3-for-3 shooting.
As he has done so often during his time in Milwaukee, Middleton manipulated his defender perfectly by catching them leaning out of position for a second and creating space for himself. Just look at the intricacy of Middleton’s dribble on the play above.
Middleton started a drive to his right before pushing the ball behind his back at the exact moment Franz Wagner tried to fight over the top of Lopez’s screen. With Franz Wagner out of the game, Middleton focused on the elder Wagner brother and quickly took advantage of Mo backpedaling in drop coverage with a stepback move to give himself five feet of room to snag a quick midrange jumper.
After scoring seven points and collecting three assists and two rebounds in his first seven-minute stint, Middleton continued to pick apart the Magic defense with his play and craft as a scorer. The 11-year veteran forward pulled out all his tricks on Tuesday, drawing six fouls on Magic defenders, allowing him to hit 13 of 14 at the free throw line.
There could still be setbacks ahead for Middleton. He could miss several games as the Bucks finish the regular season. But his first start in this comeback felt like an overwhelming success.
Lopez looking to score
Much of the attention Lopez has received this season has been focused on his contributions on the defensive end. While that attention is well-deserved, it has kept people from discussing everything Lopez does for the Bucks on offense.
As covered early in the season at Athleticslopez spent the offseason reworking his jump shot and it has resulted in the best 3-point shooting season of his career, with the Bucks big man knocking down 38.3 percent from 3 on 4.9 attempts per game.
But on Tuesday, with Antetokounmpo off the floor, Lopez showed his versatility. Instead of taking 3s on the perimeter, Lopez focused on dominating in the paint, but he didn’t do it as “Brooklyn Brook,” the alter ego Bucks teammates claim resembles the dominant post presence Lopez once was with the Nets. Instead, Lopez just did his best to set screens and serve as a rim runner for Middleton.
After the Bucks tore up the Magic’s defense in the first quarter, Magic coach Jamahl Mosley moved to a zone defense, which gave the Bucks trouble at first before Middleton and Lopez regrouped. With a skilled passer in Middleton, Lopez quickly found the soft spots in the zone.
Before the Magic could really settle down on the defensive end, Middleton threw a gorgeous one-handed bounce pass to the middle of the defense, and Lopez finished through Bol Bol, waiting for him at the rim.
Two possessions later, Middleton managed to attract the attention of several defenders before lifting an alley-oop to Lopez up over the top of Bol.
Although the stage wasn’t nearly as big and the play wasn’t nearly as important, Lopez’s rim-running and finishing were similar to his performance in Game 5 of the 2021 Eastern Conference finals, when the Bucks played without Antetokounmpo for the first time in their championship run and Lopez scored a career playoff-high 33 points.
When Antetokounmpo is active, he is the Bucks’ rim-running threat. When he’s on the bench, Lopez fills that role, and he showed once again that he’s more than capable of wreaking havoc around the rim, even if he does it somewhat differently than the Greek Freak.
(Photo by Brook Lopez: Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)