CLEVELAND – For anyone who watched Wednesday’s game against the Indiana Pacers, it was obvious Milwaukee Bucks wing Khris Middleton was desperately trying to find a spot where he could knock a shot down.
The paint was a morass of defenders bent on turning him away, so that was largely a no go. He launched up seven three-pointers – most good looks, especially for player who has shot around 40 percent this season – but none of them went through the net.
He even dipped into the comfort zone – the midrange – which he has mostly abandoned this season while adapting to coach Mike Budenholzer’s system built on high-efficiency shots. Even there, Middleton couldn’t catch a break.
By game’s end, he was just 4 of 18 from the field and 0 of 7 from three-point range. Add those totals to what Middleton had done in his previous six games and the picture is fairly bleak for Milwaukee’s No. 2 scorer. Over his past seven games, Middleton is 29 of 99 from the field (29.3 percent) and 14 of 48 from beyond the arc (29.2 percent) dating back Milwaukee’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Nov. 26.
“(It’s been) a search,” Middleton said Wednesday night when asked about trying to regain his rhythm. “I think it’s starting to come together. Some good looks last game, lot of good looks this game. Just thinking about it too much. It’ll start going soon.
“If you’ve been a Bucks fan for a while, this isn’t new. I’ve gone through some slumps every season I’ve been here. At some point, it’s going to come through. Just gotta keep shooting. Stay patient.”
Other issues have compounded Middleton’s struggles. He started December with a poor showing, getting benched by Budenholzer for the fourth quarter and overtime of the Bucks’ loss to the New York Knicks due to poor effort, especially on defense. He then dealt with an illness last week and missed last Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Pistons for personal reasons.
In a game in which rhythm and consistency are critical, Middleton has struggled with both. While he continues to try to get himself back into form, the Bucks are down a major weapon.
Middleton may be averaging more points per 36 minutes than he did last season, but during this slump, his numbers have been down significantly and to the detriment of Milwaukee’s offense. Over the past few weeks, it’s easy to see he just hasn’t been himself.
“I talked to him a little bit when I was out the previous game,” Giannis Antetokounmpo said, referring to Monday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who the Bucks will face again Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
“I told him he’s got to find his confidence. Miss or make he’s got to keep shooting the ball and play with confidence, like, be Khris. … I just hate watching him when he doesn’t play with confidence because I know how much we need Khris, how much I need Khris because when he’s out there he’s a threat. He takes a lot of attention off me.
“When Khris is not playing aggressive, I’ve got two, three guys; I’ve got a wall in front of me. I just want him to get back in rhythm and he will get back in rhythm because we’re going to make him shoot the ball until he gets back in rhythm.”
While Middleton has found his way out of slumps before, this season brings a different puzzle to crack. The way the Bucks are playing – with a higher emphasis on three-pointers and points in the paint while trending away from post-ups and midrange shots – is a departure from what the team used to do offensively.
Milwaukee’s shot chart is one of the best in the league when it comes to expected point production and the Bucks own one of the best offensive ratings in the league because of that change. Overall, the scheme Budenholzer installed is working.
However, there are aspects players are still getting used to. When trying to get himself going, Middleton isn’t as likely to use isolations, post-ups or go to tough-looking midrange shots. That’s not what Milwaukee’s more egalitarian offense – built on ball movement, player movement and unselfishness – is about anymore.
Making that adjustment is something he’s still working through.
“It’s a little bit different system I’m playing, so I can’t go back to my old habits as much,” Middleton said. “Just have to do the best I can finding (my rhythm) the way we’re playing now.”
The system may be different, but it’s not like Middleton isn’t getting opportunities with the ball. His usage percentage is only slightly lower than last season and his per-36-minute averages are some of the best of his career when it comes to scoring, rebounding and assists.
However, he’s seeing more balls bounce off the rim and his field-goal percentage is the lowest of his career overall. Without the midrange element of his game, Middleton’s way down (44.6 percent) from last season’s career high of 51.7 percent on two-point shots.
Instead, he’s taken a step outside and launched a career-high volume of three-pointers at 7.1 per game and is shooting 39.1 percent on those attempts, numbers that are still mathematically advantageous for the Bucks. But doing that also means getting used to hoisting more catch-and-shoots off kickouts and mentally adjusting to missing more than he did from his comfortable midrange spots.
For Milwaukee, where letting good shots fly is mandated, the main remedy to shooting slumps is getting up more shots.
“I just want him to keep shooting and I trust Khris that he’s going to be the guy that we need him to be,” Antetokounmpo said.
Although the past few weeks have featured relatively low offensive outputs from Middleton, there have been positives. He sank the Chicago Bulls with a three-pointer in the closing seconds of what had otherwise been a quiet night. Following his benching, he’s also provided a more engaged brand of defense, earning praise for the way he challenged Golden State’s Kevin Durant and Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard in back-to-back games.
Sure, Middleton’s offense hasn’t been what is usually is and it’s definitely not what is was when he shot 54.9 percent on three-pointers during the Bucks’ season-opening seven-game win streak, but his teammates and coaches see his buy-in, especially on defense. They also know what he’s done in the past and to a man, everyone in the locker room believes Middleton – often in the past referred to as their security blanket – will work his way out of the mire soon.
“Certainly Khris is a great player and he’s going to start making more shots,” Budenholzer said. “He started the season incredibly hot, so I think we have a lot of faith that he’s going to return to that. But you know, he’s human, so he’s just got to keep working and he’ll fight his way through it.”