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Is Middleton’s improved playoff defense sustainable?

After his very strong showing throughout the Milwaukee Bucks’ playoff run last year, can Khris Middleton‘s refined defensive play carry over into a pivotal 2018-19 NBA season?

Last time we saw Khris Middleton in action, he was doing practically everything in the hopes of helping the Milwaukee Bucks prevail over the Boston Celtics in a hard-fought first round series during last year’s playoffs.

The buzzer beating heroics at the end of regulation in Game 1 obviously served as a shining example of that, but the ripple effects of Middleton’s sparkling play throughout the entire series can still be felt today as Bucks-centric previews for the upcoming season start to pick up across the interwebs.

As all Bucks fans may be quick to rattle off, Middleton posted 24.7 points per game on shooting splits of .598/.610/.737, 5.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game throughout the seven games against the Celtics, all coming on 39.3 minutes per contest.

But as much as Middleton’s sterling offensive play garnered the spotlight from followers and pundits alike around the league, his defensive services may have been under-appreciated after all this time.

That may be a strange sentiment for some, given the very well-publicized defensive struggles the Bucks experienced throughout all of last season and in the postseason under the team’s previous coaching regime.

A consequence of that was Middleton’s defensive play not shining as brightly as it did in previous seasons, even after garnering the “3-and-D” label during his early breakout years a few seasons ago.

Despite all of that, Middleton saved his best defense for the playoff last season when matched up against any of the Celtics’ young, budding swingmen in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown or slotting on down to the 4-spot to defend the thorny Marcus Morris.

Admittedly, the advanced numbers doesn’t reflect that all that much after the fact, as the Bucks allowed 107.7 points per 100 possessions in the 275 minutes Middleton was on the floor during last year’s playoffs, per NBA.com/stats.

Yet the versatility and the savviness Middleton displayed on the defensive end during the postseason last year helped keep the Bucks afloat as they fought to extend the series to seven games.

After a regular season where his defense was uncharacteristically underwhelming, the playoffs brought about a version of Middleton who was fully engaged, locked in, and looked to be very much back to the kind of defensive play he’d become know for over his time in Milwaukee.

With that said, it should be noted that in the brief time Middleton was off the floor during the playoffs last year, the Bucks’ defensive rating trickled down down to 99.9 points per 100 possessions. It also should be noted that the Bucks’ offensive rating plummeted down to 93.2 points per 100 possessions in that span without Middleton, which stood as the worst of Bucks players that saw time in late April.

Whether all of that serves as the basis for what we could see from Middleton on that end this coming season under new head coach Mike Budenholzer is an interesting proposition to ponder.

Much of the focus surrounding the discussion of how Coach Bud’s defensive specialties could lift the Bucks in that regard has revolved around the endless capabilities of Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and for good reason. For as much as that’s the case, Middleton equally stands as an integral piece to the puzzle of designing a defensive scheme that brings the best out of the Bucks’ personnel.

Perhaps it’s the change in voice going from the Bucks’ previous coaching regime to Budenholzer and his staff or the fact that the 27-year-old is entering an intriguing contract year that will help Middleton realize his potency on that side of the floor once again.

Another variable in all of this is how much more we see of Middleton playing at the 4 as he did for times during the playoffs last year, given the lack of versatile 3-4 forwards that’s present on the Bucks’ roster.

Next: Bucks: Can Mike Budenholzer fix the defense?

In any event, with plenty of expectations surrounding his coming campaign and the Bucks’ season in general, Middleton’s potential defensive play will not be lost in the shuffle as sharp-eyed fans will surely take note of how he fares on that end.

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