Before the Milwaukee Bucks hit the court Monday for their first team practice session since Saturday’s overtime loss to the New York Knicks, Khris Middleton and coach Mike Budenholzer spent a long time together in the team’s theater room.
They certainly had plenty to talk about and watch on film.
Budenholzer opted to bench Middleton for the entire fourth quarter Saturday as well as the overtime period. Middleton had left a lot to be desired on defense in that game, particularly late in the third quarter when he didn’t grab a rebound he easily could have gotten and moments later barely made an attempt to close out against a three-pointer.
Budenholzer cited the play of Sterling Brown as one of the reasons he didn’t bring Middleton back in, noting he never considered subbing Middleton back into the game. He also was making a point.
“I think the whole team we need to be better defensively, so it’s just I think we need to keep pushing that message, keep pushing that envelope,” Budenholzer said. “Khris maybe took a little bit of the brunt to the message to the whole team, that I don’t think we should feel real good about what we’re doing on that end of the court right now. But Khris is certainly a big part of that. We have high expectations for him and our group.”
Two days removed from the Knicks game, the two were able to clear the air.
“He thought I wasn’t doing the right things. I agreed with him on some parts of it, that’s it,” Middleton said. “We had a conversation about it. Both got on the same page on what we wanted from each other. That’s what it’s all about – be on the same page and to win. That’s the most important thing.”
Conversations like the one Middleton and Budenholzer had Monday aren’t what either party wants. However, they both know they’re bound to happen over the course of any season in a player-coach relationship. Middleton has been benched before. Budenholzer has had to sit players down.
What matters most, though, is keeping dialogue both open and constructive in the aftermath while also turning things around in future games. Budenholzer believes Middleton is the kind of player who can do that.
“We talk a lot about having high-character guys and high-IQ guys and I think that’s one of the characteristics of those types of people or players that if and when something doesn’t go their way, their reaction usually is to come back and fight harder, dig deeper, do more,” Budenholzer said. “I think that’s how Khris is built and I think that’s what he’ll do.”
The early returns have been good, according to Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who praised Middleton’s hard work and leadership displayed in Monday’s practice. Antetokounmpo also spoke highly of Middleton’s reaction to getting benched, crediting him for taking ownership of his inadequate performance Saturday in his postgame comments.
“Your leader of the team saying that, that’s like, big,” Antetokounmpo said. “You need those types of players on your team, you need guys that can look themselves in the mirror and have an actually honest opinion about themselves. … Khris is going to come back stronger. I know he’s going to be ready for Wednesday.”
About that threat
Antetokounmpo, who was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Month on Monday, made waves during his own postgame interview Saturday night. That’s when he threatened to punch Knicks guard Mario Hezonja in the groin if Hezonja ever tried to step over him again in the same manner he did in the first quarter Saturday.
Two days removed from the incident, Antetokounmpo expressed that he felt bad about his word choice, but not the message they sent.
“What I said, I meant it,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m a person that I don’t take words back. I wasn’t mad or frustrated after the game; it was more of a pride thing. But I know I’ve got to choose better words, try to word my sentences better. Sometimes it’s tough because I’m not here, I’m from overseas, so I come out as more harsh.
“But I’ve got to do a better job because I know I’m a role model for a lot of kids and seeing kids on the road saying, ‘Yeah, punch him in the …’ that’s not a good thing. I feel terrible about that. As a person, what I said there I meant it, but I’ve got to choose better words.”
The people’s champ
For more than a month, the Bucks have tracked their free-throw competitions at the end of practice. With the data collected – not including free throws taken in games – they set up a bracket that on Monday culminated in a championship match between Tony Snell and Malcolm Brogdon.
The competition is simple: Each player takes turns shooting two free throws. A swish counts for two points, a make counts for one and a miss results in a negative point. The winner is the first player to get exactly to 21.
With virtually the entire team and staff around them, Snell and Brogdon finished tied before going into three overtime periods. In the second, Brogdon, who has made 36 of 37 free throws this season, swished both of his attempts, forcing Snell to match. Snell did just that and in the next overtime, after a Brogdon miss, Snell took home the team’s custom-made championship belt, which he will hold until the next competition in January.
“Malcolm right now, he’s shooting, like, 90 percent from the free-throw line, so I really felt great that I got this belt from him,” Snell said. “I’m walking around with this thing everywhere all month.”