Posted on: December 1, 2022, 11:05h.
Last updated on: December 1, 2022, 12:06h.
The Milwaukee Bucks are on the cusp of getting small forward Khris Middleton back in the starting lineup. He missed the first 20 games of the season while recovering from a wrist injury.
Middleton could return to the starting five as early as Friday when the Bucks host the Los Angeles Lakers.
Middleton underwent left wrist surgery in the off-season and he missed nearly the first quarter of the regular season rehabbing his injury. Without Middleton, the Bucks went 15-5 and posted the second-best record in the NBA. Only the Boston Celtics at 18-4 won more games than the Bucks this season.
The Bucks are thrilled that they managed to win 75% of their games without their second-best scorer. Without Middleton in the starting five, Giannis “Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo picked up the scoring slack. Antetokounmpo emerged as one of three co-favorites to win the MVP, averaging 31.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game. He’s in the top five in scoring and rebounding, and is ranked #5 with a 28.95 PER rating.
The team rallied around their tight defense, which is anchored by center Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo at power forward. The duo are also the top two favorites to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Lopez is +180 odds to win DPOY according to DraftKings’ NBA Awards board, and Antetokounmpo is +350 odds as his closest competition.
Bucks Were Patient with Middleton
Without Middleton in the first 20 games of the season, head coach Mike Budenholzer inserted three guards in the starting lineup. The triple-guard offense included two point guards — Jrue Holiday and Jevon Carter — and one shooting guard in Grayson Allen. The trio found success, so the Bucks didn’t feel like they had to rush Middleton back into the lineup.
“It’s wild,” Lopez told The Athletic. “We’ve been playing without an All-Star, All-NBA guy, and tops at his position. That’s scary. Obviously, we want Khris to take his time, make sure he’s healthy, but that’s an exciting prospect to think about.”
Holiday, revered as one of the NBA’s best two-way players and as a lockdown defender, is the Bucks’ second-best scorer without Middleton. Holiday averages 17.8 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.9 rebounds per game this season.
“It’s kind of hard missing Khris,” said Antetokounmpo. “Usually down the stretch, we all three have the ball in our hands the most, and we just try to play off reads. Now, it’s just me and Jrue.”
Carter saw a huge increase in playing time while Middleton recovered from his wrist injury. He was relegated to backup point guard duties during his first four years in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, and Brooklyn Nets. Carter joined the Bucks at last season’s trade deadline and quickly earned the trust of Budenholzer as a member of the second unit. When Middleton went down, Budenholzer didn’t flinch and promoted Carter as a starter.
Carter responded with a career-high 9.1 points, 3.5 assists, and 1.4 steals per game in 20 starts this season. He’s also shooting a career-best 42.3% from beyond the arc.
Bucks and Celtics the Best from the East
The Bucks are in first place in the Central Division and hold a two-game edge over the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Bucks are -400 odds to win the Central for a fifth-straight year, while the Cavs are +275 odds to derail the Bucks and win the division.
According to a recent update by the Mirage Casino and Sportsbook in Las Vegas, the Bucks are +600 odds to win the 2022-23 NBA championship. The Celtics, last season’s runner-up, are the consensus betting favorite at +450 odds to win the championship.
Based on their strong performances in the first quarter of the season, the Bucks and Celtics are the premier teams in the Eastern Conference. If the season ended today, the Celtics would earn the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but the Bucks would get the #2 seed. The Bucks are +310 odds to win the Eastern Conference for the second time in the last three seasons.
Middleton suffered a knee injury in the first round of the 2022 NBA playoffs, and without him, the Bucks failed to defend their title and win back-to-back championships. The Celtics knocked out the Bucks in a thrilling seven-game series in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Celtics defeated the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals to secure a trip to the 2022 NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors beat the Celtics in six games to win the championship.