When a superstar player goes down with injury the cliches roll off the tongue.
"Next man up mentality". "Injuries are part of the game."
When Giannis Antetokounmpo went down clutching his left knee in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton went to the textbook in their postgame media conference.
"Every year you're hoping all your guys stay healthy. We've already had one guy go down for the season, it's a part of the game. A lot of it is being healthy, some of it is luck and it's a part of being a great team," said Middleton.
"I've been around the game long enough to know guys are going to get hurt. You never want to see somebody get hurt, but again ... somebody else has to turn up, and that's kind of what it is," said Holiday.
In reality, that's the only reasonable response for the players to have, but it's equally as unreasonable to expect a team to be able to cover the loss of the two-time MVP.
Yet, four days later, Middleton and Holiday were hoisting the Eastern Conference Championship trophy, with the star duo leading the Bucks to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1974.
Middleton and Holiday in Game 5 + 6
In Game 6, the Bucks found themselves in a battle, leading Atlanta by just two points early in the third quarter. Hawks guard Kevin Huerter missed a potential go-ahead three, sparking a game changing transition opportunity for Milwaukee.
With just five points to his name in the first half, Middleton drove along the right baseline for a nifty left handed finish. That type of pressure relieving basket has emerged as an important addition to Middleton's arsenal, with the 29-year-old converting 65 percent of his shots within five feet of the basket in the 2021 playoffs.
Khris The Closer. pic.twitter.com/AsU0XUe9Co- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 4, 2021
From that point on Middleton entered flame thrower mode, going on a personal 13-0 run in just 1:59 of play. Overall, the two-time All-Star would tally 23 points in the period, his second 20+ point quarter of the series on the road after his fourth quarter heroics in Game 3.
Despite Middleton's hot stretch, the Hawks refused to go away, closing the gap to six points with over three minutes remaining.
Putting the ball on the floor, Holiday produced a double-clutch reverse lay-up, splitting Clint Capela and John Collins in mid air for a highlight reel basket Milwaukee desperately needed.
HOW, JRUE?? 🤯 pic.twitter.com/vE0qQuaj7Z- Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) July 4, 2021
The Hawks would never get back to that six-point deficit and Milwaukee advanced. Just like they said they would, Middleton and Holiday delivered in the absence of their star.
With Antetokounmpo's availability for the NBA Finals unknown and most certainly questionable for Game 1, the pair will again be tasked with the responsibility of carrying the load.
Unlocking Brook Lopez
Perhaps the biggest wrinkle of the non-Giannis Bucks is the role big man Brook Lopez assumes on offence.
Pouring in a career postseason high 33 points in Game 5, Lopez was a force in the paint, finishing 14-for-16 from 2-point range.
Though rarely seen in recent times, Lopez's dominance was not fuelled by old school post touches and dominance down low, instead it was sparked by utilising the open space in the lane without Antetokounmpo in the lineup, setting screens and rolling to the basket or being found in the dunker spot off dribble penetration.
Across Game 5 and 6, Lopez connected on 19 shots, with 18 of those coming within the arc. 14 of those shots were assisted by Holiday (8) and Middleton (6).
Finding Brook in the postseason
|Player||Assists on Lopez baskets|
In Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have the most fearsome paint scorer in the league, a modern day Shaquille O'Neal capable of destroying an entire offence on his own, but in Lopez, they have a reliable replacement capable of causing his own headaches for an opposition coaching staff.
Phoenix are giving up just 42.2 points in the paint this postseason, though, the last meeting against Milwaukee in April provides a decent blueprint for the Bucks. Milwaukee scored 64 points in the painted area in the 128-127 loss, with Holiday (7-for-7) and Middleton (3-for-4) doing damage within five feet.
As for Lopez? He took just 14 shots across two regular season meetings, with 50 percent of those coming beyond the 3-point line.
|Player||P&R possessions as roll man||Points per possession|
The volume has been far greater for Antetokounmpo, but both he and Lopez rank in the top six for points per possession as the roll man during the post season (minumum 25 attempts) which is music to the ears of those pining for more Holiday-Middleton led pick-and-roll actions sprinkled into the Bucks offence.
To be clear, even if Antetokounmpo is available to play, using Holiday or Middleton as a playmaker in the half court generally results in a high quality shot opportunity for the Bucks.
Not to be ignored will be the defensive assignments both Holiday and Middleton are projected to assume, with Chris Paul and Devin Booker the likely task for the Milwaukee duo.
With Paul, you have an all-time matchup hunter, that will force Holiday to work through a bruising amount of screen actions, while Booker's ability to work with or without the ball needs no explanation.
The Finals are always a grind, though Middleton (667 minutes) and Holiday (661) have carried an extended load through the run so far, with the Suns also benefitting from an extra couple of days rest leading into Game 1.
As well as the pair have played, their 3-point shot has slumped, with Middleton's 33.8 percent mark across the postseason just shading Holiday's 29.9 percent clip in a possible indication of fatigue.
As the wait continues on Antetokounnmpo, the expanded NBA Finals schedule may produce some respite, with two days off after Game 2, 3, 4 and 5.
With or without Antetokounmpo, the Bucks will need the best of Holiday and Middleton to claim their first title in 50 years...and don't forget about the wildcard in Lopez.
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