When the Milwaukee Bucks need him most, Khris Middleton rises to the occasion.
His game might not be the flashiest, but Middleton is a bonafide star, and Game 4 of the 2021 NBA Finals is the latest addition to the 29-year-old's growing collection of signature performances during the Bucks' run at basketball immortality.
While it's become an underlying theme of the postseason, Middleton stepping up in this manner is somehow still a surprise, even though it absolutely shouldn't be.
As I outlined in my "what to watch" preview ahead of Game 4, it felt a big night was due for Middleton, who has made a habit of bouncing back after turning in relatively quiet performances, which he did in Games 2 and 3 of the Finals. As right as I want to say I was, even I shortchanged Middleton, who went for 40 after I called for a 30-point night in Game 4.
Just when it appeared that the Phoenix Suns would pull away to take a 3-1 series lead, Middleton delivered his best work in the fourth, scoring 14 of his 40 points in the game's final frame.
With at minimum two games remaining in Milwaukee's postseason run, Middleton has now hit 15 game-tying or go-ahead shots in the fourth quarter or overtime this postseason, a figure that ties him with LeBron James, who did so during his oft-referenced first Finals run of 2007, per ESPN Stats and Info.
Khris Middleton has made 15 game-tying or go-ahead shots in the 4th-quarter/OT this postseason.- ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 15, 2021
That's tied with LeBron James (2007) for the most in a single playoffs in the last 25 seasons. pic.twitter.com/P5vJL03oxg
As the postseason can feel like multiple seasons in one, it's easy to lose sight of how it all started. In case you needed a reminder, the very first game of the 2021 NBA Playoffs ended with Middleton knocking down a game-winner over the Miami Heat with 0.5 seconds remaining in overtime.
First and foremost, the shot gave the Bucks a 1-0 series lead over the Heat, but it meant so much more.
Middleton's shot set the tone in what would result in a series sweep, exorcising some of the playoff demons brought by the very same Miami team less than one year prior. His willingness to step up to the moment also set the tone for the series to come, as he cemented himself as both the team's closer and a calming force in treacherous situations.
As pointed out by NBA.com's Kane Pitman, some of Middleton's best work has come when Milwaukee's back is against the wall.
Down 2-0 to the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference Semifinals? Middleton stepped up to finish with 35 points and 15 rebounds to do his part to ensure the Bucks didn't fall into a 3-0 series deficit.
Facing elimination three games later, Middleton turned in a performance for the ages, finishing with 38 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals to help the Bucks force a Game 7. Middleton's shooting splits in that decisive Game 7 might not have been pretty, but his game-winner was picture perfect.
KHA$H MONEY!!!!!! pic.twitter.com/eSSpHrWsbl- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) June 20, 2021
Onto the Eastern Conference Finals.
After a surprising Game 1 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee took care of business in Game 2, but it still needed to regain home court advantage. In Game 3, Middleton saw to it that the Bucks did just that, scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter alone to finish with 38 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists to give his team a 2-1 series lead.
In Game 4, disaster struck, with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo going down with a scary knee injury that put his playoff future in jeopardy.
Naturally, Middleton stepped up in Games 5 and 6, finishing with 26 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists to push the Hawks to the brink of elimination before delivering a cold-blooded 32-point performance in the closeout Game 6 to help lead the Bucks to the NBA Finals for the first time in 47 years, while their superstar aggressively rehabilitated his ailing knee.
Khris The Closer. pic.twitter.com/AsU0XUe9Co- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 4, 2021
This brings us back to where we are in the NBA Finals.
Middleton's Game 4 performance adds to an extensive résumè that reminds us that he might be the most disrespected star in the league. A legitimate All-Star snub, Middleton has swayed the course of multiple postseason series, including the NBA Finals with his stellar play.
Now just two wins away from the first Bucks title since 1971, Middleton is seeing to it that he won't be disrespected from this point forth.
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