MILWAUKEE --Minutes before the Milwaukee Bucks tipped off against the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday night, Fiserv Forum went dark to prepare for player introductions. But before the usual video montage set to ear-pounding music kicked in, a tribute to Khris Middleton flashed across the screen. For the first time in seven months, the Bucks' "steering wheel" was back.
On April 20, during Game 2 of the Bucks' first-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls last season, Middleton slipped on a wet spot and suffered a Grade 2 sprain of his MCL in his left knee. His life since then has been a series of professional and personal setbacks: he missed the remainder of the Bucks' playoff run, underwent wrist surgery that held him out of the first 20 games this season and had to bury his father, who passed away in November.
Though the Bucks fell in a 133-129 thriller, Middleton's return was a bright spot for both himself and the team.
"It felt great," Middleton said. "I should say good, if we got the win it would have been great. Felt really good to be back out there with the guys, competing, playing ... Been through a lot in these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous, so to finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me, it felt pretty good."
Early on, Middleton didn't look like a player coming back from a long layoff and two significant injuries. He found Brook Lopez for a 3-pointer with a spinning, lefty dime, then a few minutes later hit one of his patented mid-range jumpers. He finished with 17 points and seven assists on 6-of-11 from the field.
"Just relying on my experience," Middleton said. "Being out before in the middle of the season, being out whenever then coming back. Just not to rush. Let the game come to me. Don't try to do much your first game back, just try to fit in and play off my teammates."
Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer had a similar reaction.
"Pretty impressive how seamlessly he got back into the game, both ends of the court," Budenholzer said. "We talk a lot about how Khris is just a basketball player. He's a smart player. Just understands the game. Not over-reliant on athleticism or things like that."
Late in the fourth, however, Middleton missed a couple of crucial shots in the lane, including a runner with 1:43 remaining and the Bucks trailing by three. At his best, those are shots Middleton converts, and if he had on Friday the Bucks may have won. But whether it was fatigue, rust or simply misses, Middleton wasn't interested in excuses.
"That's just basketball, it's the way things work out sometimes," Middleton said. "I'm not gonna make excuses for myself with plays like that. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. Just gotta continue to compete, try to limit those as much as possible and continue to play."
Singular result aside, Middleton's return makes this Bucks team whole again. Budenholzer called it a "big step," while Giannis Antetokounmpo said it "takes us to a whole different level." To a man, the Bucks believe they would have beaten the Boston Celtics in the playoffs last season, and perhaps repeated as champions if Middleton did not get hurt. Now, they'll have a chance to test that theory.
"Giannis is like the heart and soul, the engine of it," said Lakers head coach Darvin Ham, who served as an assistant with the Bucks the previous four seasons. "Khris is like the steering wheel. He's the GPS in terms of understanding what to do in order to not only make himself successful, but the team successful. Giannis is the focal point but Khris to me is the master of putting guys where they need to be, orchestrating different things down the stretch. He's like the quarterback. Khris levels everything off. He brings the balance."