Bucks hope final clean bill of health spurs late-season momentum

Khris Middleton made his return to the Bucks on Monday against the Pistons.

Milwaukee — Given how fickle the NBA’s injury gods can be, Bobby Portis probably should have avoided the topic of health altogether.

On Monday morning, the animated Big Man of the Milwaukee Bucks was on the phone talking about his team’s suddenly rosy outlook, with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton finally available again for that night’s game in Detroit.

“If we can get those guys back, that would be nice,” Portis told NBA.com. “Getting everyone back into their normal roles, getting our chemistry and camaraderie back, and trying to get some wins together will make everything better.”

That evening, Portis seemed fine by all reports as he left the visitors’ dressing room at Little Caesars Arena, not hampered after the Pistons player fell to his right knee.

As of Tuesday, Portis was listed as OUT on the injury report with a newly sprained knee.

And so it goes for the Bucks, whose championship aspirations continue to be hampered by injuries to key members in the final three months of 2022-23.

While staying fit and healthy has brought a freshness to this team, coach Mike Budenholzer and his staff have opened up opportunities up and down the roster to make up for the absence. This isn’t particularly new for Milwaukee or many other teams. But it has put the Bucks’ full potential on a leash, and it doesn’t take long to remember that to appreciate what that means.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton both return from injury as the Bucks post a 150-130 win over the Pistons.

It was only this past spring when Middleton shrugs his knee in the first round of the playoffs against Chicago. It was just that – without the smooth veteran wing, the Bucks didn’t have enough to survive against Boston in seven games in the Eastern Semifinals. His 115.5 scoring average was bound to drop anyway, but it went up to 97.7 without Middleton and his nightly threat of 20 points or more.

Well, the 31-year-old appeared in his eighth game on Monday. He missed the first 20 recovering from offseason wrist surgery, then 18 more with right knee pain. He looked rusty against the Pistons (eight points, six turnovers in 15 minutes) but at least he was back. And the Bucks won 150-130 for the first time this season with a fully healthy roster.

The situation was worsened by Antetokounmpo’s absence from Monday through January 11 with sore left knee. He has missed 11 games so far, on a pace of about 62 appearances and equal to what he has played in the past three seasons.

Now if he is just preparing for the playoffs, then there is no problem. Antetokounmpo’s postseason workload has been strong before and after suffering a scary hyperextended knee in the 2021 East Final against Atlanta. But without his wingman Middleton often lately, this season has been one of mixed results and a bit of slippage, with other pieces rising or falling less predictably.

At 30–17, Milwaukee has the fifth-best record in the NBA and third in the East. It sat there in 47 matches last season (28-19) and pre-championship 2020-21 (30-17).

However, hidden within that are some worrying numbers: The Bucks — who face Denver at Fisher Forum on Wednesday night — are an impressive 18-5 at home, but only 12-12 on the road. And he has dropped from third overall offensively (114.3 points per 100 possessions) to 23rd (111.8) in 2021-22.

His shooting, both overall and from 3-point field, is down, and his turnovers are up. Defensively, he ranks third (110.4) in rebounds and blocks thanks to the regular presence of Brook Lopez after missing (back) most of 2021-22.

But the most pressing issue has been Middleton’s unavailability. It’s no stretch to say what will happen to the Bucks’ ambitions as it goes on.

Who is in a position to move forward and who needs to be worried as the NBA hits the halfway mark?

Asked to define this season, Portis said: “We haven’t been our second best player for most of the season. He’s a big part of what we do, running different plays, different sets. Most of our offense is built around him and Giannis.

Point guard Junior Holliday recently papered on some of them. In a six-game run without either of the offense’s No. 1 or No. 2 weapons, the 32-year-old Holiday averaged 27.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 9.0 assists. That level of play confirmed his value to his teammates and coaches, who watched him earn East Player of the Week honors every day.

“Obviously he sees we need more scoring,” Portis said. “But he still does a good job of getting everyone involved. He’s also a two-way player, able to guard the opponents’ best players well. But I don’t think he can do everything with the ball.” He gets enough credit for that. Goes both ways, both hands. Step back. He hits clutch shots for us, and is a helluva basketball player in every way.

For all the accolades he’s received around the NBA, Holiday has been an All-Star just once: ten years ago at age 22. He stepped up again Monday in Detroit, taking just 12 shots and scoring 16 against the Bucks’ big guns. floor again.

Then there’s Portis himself, who stepped into a bench role after making a career-high 59 starts last season while Lopez was out. He is – or should be – a legitimate candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, potentially only the second double-double man in the award’s 40-year history.

Roy Tarpley of Dallas averaged 13.5 points and 11.8 rebounds when he won it in 1987–88. Portis is at 14.4 and 10.1, eyeing the SMOY prize since the season began.

“I get it, man, we play in Milwaukee,” Portis said. “Most cities, most people don’t really care about what we’re doing.”

What happens to the Bucks in mid-April will depend on Middleton’s return to form and Antetokounmpo’s freshness. The arrows were pointing up in the mighty game in Detroit.

“It doesn’t mean we’re going to score 150 every night,” Antetokounmpo told reporters afterward, “but once we’re at full strength, this team is really good. There’s a lot of threat.” The public understands its role. As long as we can stay healthy, we have a chance and that’s all you can say.


Steve Ashburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on twitter,

The views expressed on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery Sports.

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