Giannis Antetokounmpo got big assist from Khris Middleton in leading Bucks to NBA Finals

Jeff Zillgitt

MILWAUKEE – Khris Middleton, a second-round NBA draft pick, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who also wasn’t a lottery pick, are the two best players on an NBA title contender.

“There's a lot of good fortune there for both Khris and Giannis to end up here,” Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “And now being together for seven, eight years that they have been teammates and kind of building this together and trying to get to this point, it speaks to being able to build championship-level teams different ways. There's not just one way to make it to the NBA Finals.”

But Milwaukee’s way is rare.

The Bucks have just one lottery pick in the starting five, and that’s Brook Lopez who is 13 years removed from going No. 10 in the 2008 draft.

Khris Middleton (left) and Giannis Antetokounmpo both joined the Bucks in 2013 and have led them to the NBA Finals.

Not often are the two best players on an Eastern Conference championship team a guy who was reluctantly traded just to make a deal that featured two other players work, and a player born in Greece to Nigerian parents.

When the Bucks acquired Middleton from Detroit in 2013, the main part of the deal was Brandon Jennings for Brandon Knight – two point guards who needed a change of scenery. Middleton was the only player the Pistons had who would make the deal work financially under the NBA trade rules.

Jennings and Knight are out of the league, and Middleton has a starring role in the Finals.

No one involved in drafting Antetokounmpo, the No. 15 overall pick in 2013, pictured him as a two-time MVP even in their most fantastical daydreams.

But here they are in the Finals with a chance to tie the series in Game 4 against Phoenix on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, ABC).

"It's an unbelievable journey," Antetokounmpo said.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton arrived to the Bucks in the summer of 2013 and endured a 15-67 season in 2013-14. Both players were fighting for playing time and battling each other in practice.

“At first, friendly competition, a guy like him from Detroit and I just got drafted,” Antetokounmpo said. “We just tried to get on the floor, going at one another in practices. But throughout the time, there was a lot of times that he proved that he's going to do whatever it takes to help the team win. That's the type of guy that you want next to you.”

Middleton developed into an All-Star at his pace, just like he plays the game at a deliberate pace. Budenholzer noticed that talent from afar when he coached Atlanta.

Then, he worked closely with Middleton.

“Since being around him every day, just his work ethic, his professionalism,” Budenholzer said. “But as far as a player, the ability to be a playmaker and grow as a passer, I think that that's been a huge part of our growth. Maybe he did it more before, just sometimes you don't see it and pick up on it like you do when you're around somebody every day.

“Just what he does at 6-8, he's a really skilled, gifted smart basketball player. His IQ, I talk a lot about his IQ. It's off the charts. He sees and reads and understands things very quickly and at a very, very high level.”

Antetokounmpo averaged just 6.8 points his rookie season. The Bucks made the playoffs in 2014-15, missed the next season and were returned to the postseason in 2016-17. By then, the Bucks were beginning to take shape as a playoff regular with Antetokounmpo and Middleton emerging as the players to build around.

Budenholzer took over as coach in 2018, and the Bucks won 60 games that season. Antetokounmpo won his first of two MVPs and Middleton made the first of his two All-Star teams.

Khris Middleton (left) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (right) have formed a formidable duo for the Bucks on offense as well as defense.

“It just shows that we grew as players and as a team that we no longer have to beat each other up during practices to make each other better,” Middleton said. “Now it came to, ‘OK, how do we win a game together?’ We were on separate (practice) teams back then, practicing, clawing against each other. Now we're on the same (practice) team because we need that chemistry to form so that we're able to go into a game and play together and co-exist out there at the same time.”

That doesn’t mean there’s still not healthy competition, just in a different way.

“We're still confident players,” Middleton said. “He could be right here and I will tell you I'm better than him and he'll say the same thing. That's just who we are. That's why we love each other so much. But at the same time, we have two totally separate games.”

Those separate games blend well with the two forming a tight bond on and off the court.

One reason Middleton re-signed with Bucks in 2019 was so that he could continue playing alongside Antetokounmpo, and Middleton was a factor in Antetokounmpo’s decision to sign an extension before this season.

"We were talking about maybe like, I don't know, maybe (three weeks ago) in the locker room and we were talking about like how long are you going to play for," Antetokounmpo said. "It was just a silly conversation.

“I'm not going to say exactly what he said but I told him, ‘Hey, the day you retire, is going to be the toughest day in my career because like I've been with you the whole time.’ … It's great seeing this guy, man, the way we started, the way we are, the way he started and the way that he is right now.”