Khris Middleton helps Milwaukee take a 2-1 lead; all eyes on Trae Young’s ankle – .

Khris Middleton helps Milwaukee take a 2-1 lead; all eyes on Trae Young’s ankle – .

The Milwaukee Bucks may have lost Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals to the Atlanta Hawks, but with back-to-back wins they have officially regained home court advantage in the series. The Bucks won Game 3 113-102 to take a 2-1 lead over the Hawks. They are just two wins away from their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1974.

The Hawks led for most of the game, but the Bucks rallied with an incredible 20-point fourth quarter from Khris Middleton to secure the victory. He finished with 38 points overall, a career-high playoff, and that was enough for the Bucks despite Trae Young’s 35 points in another stellar outing.

The Bucks will look for a 3-1 lead on Tuesday, when the Hawks host them again in Game 4. For now, here are the biggest takeaways from Game 4.

A night to remember for Middleton

Khris Middleton had shot 33.9% from the floor in his last three games. His 6 of 23 shooting night in Game 1 cost the Bucks a 3-0 lead in that series a lot, and that’s the story of his playoffs. It fights for a few nights before going nuclear when Milwaukee needs it most. He scored 30 total points in their first two losses to Brooklyn… then scored 35 in a critical win in Game 3. He topped that with 38 in Milwaukee’s Game 6 win over the Nets, but Sunday night was his best playoff outing yet.

The Bucks scored 30 points in the fourth quarter, but Middleton had 20. He made more than 3 points (six) than the rest of his teammates combined (five). He tied for the team lead with 11 rebounds and trailed only Jrue Holiday with seven assists.

Speaking of vacation, Milwaukee’s third star shot 2 of 11 from the field. In Game 2, he scored 22 as Middleton struggled. This has been one of the strangest trends of this playoffs. The Bucks can’t throw their two secondary stars at the same time, but so far they haven’t needed one. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been so consistently excellent that as long as the Bucks have one of their other two leaders, they can generate enough offense to win.

What does Trae Young’s injury mean?

Trae Young stepped on an official’s foot in the third quarter and immediately left the game and made his way to the locker room. It was the moment that could have tipped the game and the series towards the Hawks. Young had 32 points when he left the game. He scored three runs on a 1 of 4 shot in the fourth on that bum peg, and the Bucks won the quarterback by 13 points.

Young’s plan is to play in Game 4, but that doesn’t mean he will be himself. He says he’s in pain and the plan is to get as much treatment as possible before the game. But De’Andre Hunter is out for the year. If Cam Reddish was healthy enough to play real minutes, he would likely get those minutes against Solomon Hill. Bogdan Bogdanovic still hasn’t reached double-digit points in a game since injuring his knee against the 76ers. This team is already extremely thin because of injuries. If Young is also shackled? This series is over.

Reliable reserves

Middleton may have led the Bucks in the scoring, but guess who had the best plus-minus of the game? It was Pat Connaughton at plus-25. Bobby Portis was second with a plus-17 differential and was Milwaukee’s third-leading scorer with 15 points. With Brook Lopez limited to 25 minutes, thanks to Trae Young’s ability to attack him in space, Connaughton actually played the fifth most minutes on the Bucks tonight at 32. Their energy was infectious. You don’t see 2v1 transition blocks like this every day.

By the end of the Brooklyn series, the Bucks had essentially cut their bench entirely. That only gave the reserves a total of 29 minutes in Game 7 against the Nets, and that number would have been less if PJ Tucker hadn’t been fouled. Connaughton was the only reserve of note who played in this game. Portis hasn’t seen a minute of playing time in the last three games of this series.

But between those two and Bryn Forbes, Milwaukee seems to have rediscovered its depth at a critical time. Eventually, things could get tight enough that the Bucks downsize again, but getting those big bench minutes serves several valuable purposes until that point comes. Allowing stars to play fewer minutes obviously means a lot, but just putting a cooler player in and allowing them to do everything without needing to save energy made a noticeable difference in Game 3. Connaughton and Portis have made several critical hustle and bustle plays each, and these games have made all the difference in a game as close as this one.

Okongwu brille

In the space of one minute and 12 seconds, Onyeka Okongu managed to force the jump-ball on Giannis Antetokounmpo moving at full speed …

Break a lob at Antetokounmpo …

And finish this little float with Antetokounmpo on it (leaving it alone).

It’s not in the same stretch, but he also managed to block Giannis. How many players can say that?

The overwhelming majority of rookies cannot play in the playoffs. Okongwu struggled for minutes during the regular season, averaging just 12 per game in a busy front court. But he’s shown flashes of defensive brilliance in short stints in the playoffs, and with Clint Capela and John Collins in place, the Hawks have nothing more to ask of him just yet.

Still, with Collins ready for restricted free agency this offseason, the Hawks must be relieved to see Okongwu come up like this in the playoffs. They are entirely different players, and as enticing as a full-time Capela-Okongwu duo would be defensively, it would tighten the ground too tight to be viable on offense. But if the Hawks lose Collins in the offseason, seeing Okongwu show so much potential on the bigger stage should at least make them feel good about their talent on the pitch even if the adjustment doesn’t quite work out. The Hawks appeared to pick a 6th overall winner.


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