Bucks Weekend: Khris Middleton led the Bucks on the boards in Orlando, and it almost made up for Miami

Middleton rebounds against the Hornets last season. AP photo. License: Standard non-commercial use.

It doesn’t happen very often, and when it does it’s worthy of note. Khris Middleton led the Bucks in rebounding in their 111-104 win over Orlando Saturday, their sixth straight win on the second night of back-to-back games (they lost 91-85 in D-Wade’s “return to Miami” game on Friday.)*¹

Middleton had 9 boards in Orlando, all of them on the defensive end, a couple of them big in the 4th quarter. He also made a lot of other plays, like the beautiful half-fast break he ran to set up Jason Terry for a three as the Bucks edged ahead in the 3rd quarter. Khris had 7 assists on the night to go with the 9 rebounds and 21 points. It was only the 8th time in 325 games as a Buck that Middleton alone has led the team in rebounding.

And it was quite a difference from the night before in Miami, when nobody on the Bucks side had a good game, including coach Joe Prunty, whose rotations had Giannis Antetokounmpo on the bench for 4 minutes when Heat center Hassan Whiteside picked up his 4th foul in the 3rd Quarter.*² You can get away with mismanaging your star player’s minutes against Brooklyn, but Miami took advantage. Jabari Parker played tentatively and appeared to bothered by the aggressive energy of the game. Giannis thrives under those conditions, as does Eric Bledsoe, and they led the Bucks back in the 4th but ran out of game clock. They had finally become ticked off enough about what was going on to take over.

Middleton shot 5 for 14 and had one lonely rebound as the Bucks got worked by the Heat on the glass, 51-37, a glaring example of when rebounding beats better shooting. The Bucks checked the Heat to 42% EFG%.

The concern of many who follow the Bucks is that, right now, they look like one of those mediocre 46- or 47-win teams, great at padding their stats when beating up on the bad teams, but continually falling short against the good teams. Since Jan. 1, the Bucks record against teams currently in playoff spots is 3-and-9, and Prunty is 0-and-2. (No, I’m not counting the victory over the Embiid-less Sixers as a win against a playoff team). Miami beat the Bucks three times in that period, which is why Friday’s game mattered — it was the Bucks last chance during the regular season to take a game from the Heat.

Chalk it up to the evil genius of coach Erik Spoelstra and the dominating, intimidating presence of Whiteside, who averaged 18 pts, 13.3 rebs and 3.67 blocked shots vs. the Bucks. In the wake of Whiteside’s eight offensive rebounds in game 3, Bucks center John Henson missed the Orlando game and will probably be out of action until after the All-Star break, nursing a bum hamstring and what’s left of his pride. (Bucks have until March 1 to sign some free agent big man help).

Are the Bucks a good team, or are they Giannis Antetokounmpo and a bunch of future trades who helped get their coach fired last month? I guess we’ll find out over the next two-and-a-half months.

Middleton leading the Bucks in rebounding in Orlando was a lot more interesting when I didn’t realize he had but one lonely defensive rebound in Miami. Five or six defensive rebounds a game by the small forward used to be business as usual around here (Luc Mbah a Moute, Glenn Robinson et al., going all the way back to Marques Johnson and Bobby Dandridge). The idea is to get 5 or 6 D-rebs every game and hit the offensive glass for one or two possession-saving rebounds. The latter has happened less and less for the Bucks this season. Friday in Miami, they had all of two offensive rebounds in the game. Two. The Heat had 13.

The Bucks D-rebounding has improved this season, up to 17th in the NBA from 25th last season. But if not for Dallas, the Bucks would be dead last in offensive rebounding in the league, with an OREB% of 19.2 (Dallas is at 17.9). Cleveland is 28th at 19.3%, a function of Kevin Love playing center, Tristan Thompson‘s playing time being cut, Love breaking his hand and Lebron James either playing on the perimeter or simply electing to not rebound. Lebron has always been a disinterested rebounder, in contrast to Kevin Durant or Giannis, who lead their teams on the boards.

Michael Beasley, currently leading the Knicks in scoring off the bench, has been missed. NY Times photo. License: Standard non-commercial use.

The Bucks have similar personnel issues — they traded their best rebounder, Greg Monroe, were unable to resign Michael Beasley over the summer and Jabari Parker missed the first 50 games rehabbing from knee surgery. Beasley and Parker are small forwards in the classic sense — natural scorers with sweet shooting touch and instinctual drives for the ball on offense. They’ll hit the offensive glass even as the coaches are yelling at them to get back on defense, defense being something that neither is good at, but neither was the Big Dog or any number of good and great small forwards in NBA history. Dr. J didn’t care much about D until he realized he might never win a title if he didn’t pick it up, which he did.

Middleton’s no shutdown defender either, and he’s played most of his career with better rebounders — Giannis, Greg Monroe, Parker — so, like Lebron, he’s content to stay on the perimeter and take what rebounds come his way. To be fair (and the editorial board here at Bob Boozer Jinx does insist on fairness), part of it is a matter of coaching, and part the changing NBA game. Offensive rebounding is at an all-time low in the league at 22.3%. Small forwards don’t crash for rebounds like they used to, especially if they’re setting up at the 3-point line much of the game; and coaches often demand that they “get back” to defend against the fast break.

Yet neither changes in the game nor coaching mores have prevented the OKC Thunder from leading the NBA in OREB% by a mile at 28.1% while also rating 5th in defense. Russell Westbrook simply wants the rebounds more than his opponents do. His center, Steven Adams, is having a great year, emerging as one of the Top 5 impact centers in the league and leading the NBA in individual OREB% at 17.3%. Henson’s actually 18th in the league (9.5%) which isn’t so bad for J-Hook. It’s almost stunning to think that over the course of 100 missed shots on offense, OKC’s Adams will get to eight more rebounds than Henson, and six more than Dwight Howard or LaMarcus Aldridge. Westbrook and Adams are clearly reading from the same page in OKC.

Unlike Henson, who’s doing all he can, truly, and deserves at least some merit for having his best season as a pro, Middleton can hunt rebounds whenever he wants to, or when called upon to do so. The nine rebounds he pulled down in Orlando were well short of his career high of 14, set last month in Philly, and was the 3rd time this season Middleton has led the Bucks in rebounding. The Orlando game was the first time this season Middleton led the Bucks on the boards in a game where Giannis played. Here’s a look at the other two.

  • 01/20/18 vs. the Sixers in Philly. A dreadful loss as the Bucks played without Antetokounmpo, who stayed in Milwaukee to rest recurring soreness in his right knee — also the last Bucks game coached by Jason Kidd. Middleton posted the first triple double of his career AND his career high in rebounds — 14 — to go with 23 points and 10 assists. (There’s an irony in there, to Middleton’s first triple double being Kidd’s last game, if only because there isn’t another word to aptly describe it. Giannis not playing in the game might qualify it as one of those rare double ironies.) The Sixers blew the Bucks out, 116-94. The Bucks fired Kidd two days later. Here are Middleton’s ironic highlights.

  • 11/22/2017, Bucks vs. the Suns in Phoenix  Giannis sat out to rest his knee and Middleton dropped 40 points on the Suns and led the Bucks with 9 rebs. The Bucks won this sloppy, turnover-riddled game in overtime, 113-107.

Giannis has missed four games so far this season, all due to soreness in his right knee, a problem that cropped up over the summer and forced him to drop out of international play with Team Greece. The Bucks split those four games (they lost in Charlotte 12/23/17 and beat the Suns in Milwaukee Jan. 22). Middleton put up some superstar per game numbers,  32.3 pts – 8.2 rebs – 5 assists – 2 steals. He shot a ton — 89 times in the four games — and made 53%, hitting 10 of 28 from 3-point-land. 

I’m beginning to get a better sense of how Middleton arrived at the rather off-the-wall idea that the Bucks should have two All-Stars this year, and maybe he did get a vote or two. I’m also reminded that his 18.2 pts per game led the Bucks in scoring in the 2016-17 season. Over the 17 games Prunty coached that season while Kidd was recovering from back surgery, Middleton scored more, at a clip of 22.7 ppg.

Had the Bucks been winning (they won only 33 games), Middleton might have earned an All-Star nod with stats like those above — he was shooting close to 50-40-90. Middleton’s a bargain now and is due $13 million next season, and can (and almost surely will) opt out of the final year of his contract 2019-20. Sooner than later, the Bucks will be paying Giannis, Bledsoe and Parker more than Middleton, assuming the Bucks are able to resign Parker, which GM Jon Horst says he plans to do.

With Parker back from rehab and the Bucks (and Middleton) continuing to log games like Friday’s loss to the Heat, time is suddenly moving fast for this team. Or, as Steve McQueen so succinctly put it in the crime film classic, Bullitt,  “Time starts now.” 

In 322 games as a Buck, Middleton has led the team in rebounding a total of eight times. The three games this season were noted above. Here are the box scores from the other five, starting with the most recent first, in chronological order back to 2014.

  • 03/11/17 vs. the T-Wolves in Milwaukee. Karl-Anthony Towns had a big game but Monroe and Henson battled him well off the bench. Middleton led with 9 rebounds. Giannis played 40 mins yet somehow got to only 4 rebounds. Bucks won 102-95.
  • 11/07/15 vs. the Nets in Milwaukee. Middleton took only six shots in the Bucks 94-86 win, but led with 9 rebounds and 7 assists.
  • 03/07/2015 vs the Wizards in Milwaukee. Middleton led in scoring (30) and rebounding (9) as the Bucks won a close one to pull within a game-and-a-half of WAS in the East standings. Giannis, Middleton and Henson are the only current Bucks in the box score. Parker was out rehabbing from his first ACL surgery.
  • 02/11/15 vs. the Kings in Milwaukee. Bucks lose the rebounding battle to DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson but win the game, 111-103, pushing their record to 30-23. Middleton led the Bucks with 10 rebs, three on offense. Whatever happened to Jason Thompson?*³
  • 01/04/14 vs. the Suns in Phoenix. The Bucks shot 54% but turned it over 25 times to lose 116-100. Middleton came off the bench to score 7 and pull down 8 defensive boards in 22 minutes.

*¹ Referee Tyler Ford (he’s on pg. 42 of the 2017-18 Officials Guide), in his 3rd NBA season, is a former Big Ten ref from that part of west Ohio that’s more like Indiana and Ford is every bit that fresh faced Midwestern kid with big ears who’s in every Hollywood army unit. Ford called 23 fouls — 11 in the 4th quarter, of the Bucks-Heat game Friday. The Heat actually got the worst of it, but not until after the Bucks fell behind by 18 in the 4th after consecutive Wayne Ellington threes. The Heat could do little wrong for the first 15 minutes of the 2nd half, despite hacking at Bucks anytime the drove near the basket. I suppose by the 4th quarter Ford had realized that Aaron Smith, the ref under the Heat basket, wasn’t going to police the Heat defense, so he took it upon himself to make Smith’s calls for him, apparently unconcerned that his hyper-active whistle made him appear insane – on TV no less. I’ll salute anybody willing and unafraid to appear insane in the course of righting wrongs being committed all around him in Miami on Friday. Here’s to Tyler Ford.

  Prunty tied to trick the rotations by pulling Giannis out of any 3rd quarter after just 4:34. If the justification is to get the rotations started early, around the 5 minute mark, Giannis is the last guy you want coming out of the game. Add to this the fact that the game was close, 53-50, and Miami center Whiteside had three fouls when Prunty sent Giannis to the bench, and picked up his 4th a minute later and was taken out of the game. Giannis was not in the game to take advantage of Whiteside’s absence, obviously, and the deficit was 12 by the time Prunty subbed Giannis back in with about 3:40 left in the quarter. The Bucks scored a measly 8 pts in the quarter.

  • *² The tried and true strategy is to have the superstar play continuously for about 10 minutes in the 3rd quarter, then pull him inside of 2 minutes to go to steal some extra rest over the quarter change. Here’s a Pelicans – Pistons play-by-play from Monday night where coach Alvin Gentry manages to do exactly this with Anthony Davis’ minutes. The Pelicans won by 15.  

*³ Jason Thompson left the NBA for the Chinese league Shandong Golden Stars in 2016, and is currently playing pro ball in Turkey with Fenerbahce Dogus Instanbul. There are big men out there, playing in all four corners of the globe. I can’t imagine the Bucks billionaire owners having too much difficulty buying out the contracts of big centers like Thompson or former Buck Miroslav Raduljica, the tough Serb who powered Team Serbia past Andrew Bogut and the Aussie Boomers to the silver medal in the last Olympics. Raduljica’s now playing for the Jiangsu Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Assoc. — and it looks like their season has come to an end. (edit: I’m beginning to think that if the Bucks were going to sign Bogut, it would’ve happened already. The Bucks may not be on his list.)

Sourcerole – Gamebook, Bucks vs. Miami, 02/09/18. The Bucks regular season series against the Heat has turned out to be an important measuring stick for “how things are going”, and this final game of series was no different. https://data.nba.net/10s/prod/v1/20180209/0021700821_Book.pdf

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