Khris Middleton readily admits to shying from the limelight.
"I like staying low key," he said. "I like staying out of the way."
Yet - on the game's biggest stage, in the critical moments, when the lights shone bright - in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Middleton proved to be the insurmountable obstacle blocking the path of the Suns. He carried the Bucks down the stretch and ultimately sent the series back to Phoenix for Game 5 with the teams deadlocked, 2-2.
Giannis Antetokounmpo's late block on Deandre Ayton generated 24 million video views across social media as of Thursday afternoon (ET), but it was Middleton's clutch play in the closing minutes that placed his teammate in position to make that game-saving play. That's why Antetokounmpo and Middleton occupy the top two spots in this edition of Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder.
"They have been here the longest. They have been through the most together," Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said. "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 come 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, and they carry us just like they did tonight."
Never afraid of the moment. pic.twitter.com/BYqhg8TrC1- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 16, 2021
Middleton ran roughshod through Phoenix in the second half of Game 4, scoring 24 of his playoff career-high 40 points after intermission, which included 14 points in the last 12 minutes. Over the last 30 seconds of Game 4, Middleton scored six points, starting with a layup off a Holiday assist in transition, before knocking down four free throws to put his squad up six points with 13.7 ticks remaining.
As colleague Steve Aschburner points out here, Middleton just has a knack for raising his game when the stakes are highest, averaging 27.1 points in Games 3-7 of the playoffs thus far, after averaging 18 points on 27.8% shooting in Games 1-2 of the four series the Bucks have played in up to this point.
"I'm very proud," Antetokounmpo said of Middleton. "But as I said, it comes down to trust. I trust him. You know, win or lose, I'm OK with it. I trust Khris. I know [Middleton and Holiday] are going to make the right play, and I know they are going to deliver the ball when I'm open. But what he did tonight was incredible. We need him to keep doing it. We are within reach of our goals."
Antetokounmpo's block on Ayton with 1:14 remaining provided Milwaukee's sizzle, but Middleton delivered the fat, juicy steak in the clutch by shooting 5-for-9 in the fourth quarter for 14 points.
"I think the character, the care-factor, is off the charts," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of Middleton. "You need somebody who can make those shots. He and Giannis in a pick and roll, Giannis setting great screens. Khris, I thought he had some good looks kind of early. But then, he just stayed with it. Credit to him. A lot of big, tough shots, and then the tough finish in transition. He was special."
And now, the Top 3 in our 2021 Race to the NBA Finals MVP Ladder:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
NBA Finals stats: 32.3 ppg, 14.0 rpg, 1.8 spg, 1.5 bpg
Figured out in Game 2 he could get into the paint and score at will, and he's continued doing so throughout The Finals, racking up 26 points on 11-for-19 shooting in Game 4 to go with 14 rebounds, eight assists, three steals and two blocks. Over the last two games, Antetokounmpo has dished 14 assists while turning over the ball just twice. Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton served as the catalysts for Milwaukee outscoring Phoenix in points off turnovers (24-5), fast break points (15-0) and second-chance points (19-7).
2. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
NBA Finals stats: 24.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.5 apg, 1.3 spg
Surely, Bucks fans asked themselves whether they'd see at least one Khris Middleton game in the NBA Finals, and the man provided the fanbase a treat for the ages. In addition to the 40 points, Middleton contributed six rebounds, four assists and two steals with only one turnover on the night. "I don't count shots," Middleton said. "I just try to let the game come to me, the shots that I have to take no matter what, no matter how many times I shoot in a minute, no matter how many times I miss, that's just the way I play the game. I don't realize any stats or shots or points really until the end of the game."
3. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
NBA Finals stats: 27.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.0 apg
Shot 3-for-14 (10 points) in Phoenix's Game 3 loss, but bounced back in a major way for Game 4 with a game-high 42 points (17-28 FGs) over 39 minutes. Such bounce-back games are typical for Booker, who likely would've inflicted more damage had he not gotten into foul trouble. "It doesn't matter at all," Booker said after Game 4. "I said that after last game, too, when I struggled shooting it. The main objective is to win the game. So, anything that goes on throughout the game, it doesn't matter for real."
And two more:
Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
NBA Finals stats: 15.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 8.0 apg
Holiday's Game 4 performance was a classic case of the box score not truly matching up to the contributions on the floor. Holiday scored 13 points on 4-for-20 shooting, marking his seventh postseason outing shooting 35% or worse from the field, but he contributed three steals and suffocating defense all night on Chris Paul.
Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
NBA Finals stats: 14.0 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 1.5 spg
Scored a postseason-low six points, while finishing with his worst shooting performance (33%) of the playoffs. Still, Ayton played tough defense at the rim and gobbled up 17 rebounds in addition to coming up with three blocks against a Bucks squad that you can expect to continue attacking hard in the paint.
Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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