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Middleton is Bucks’ closer, proves it down stretch to even Finals vs. Suns

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the two-time MVP, the best player on the team, maybe the only guy in the league who could get up and block a Deandre Ayton alley-oop.

But Khris Middleton is the Bucks closer.

He had to be to keep Milwaukee’s dream of a title alive in Game 4. The Suns did a good job taking the Bucks out of their preferred transition offense, Jrue Holiday went back in his shooting slump, and the Bucks shot 7-of-29 from 3. Throw in a red hot Devin Booker — 42 points and a force from the midrange again — and this game was there for the Suns to steal.

Then there was Middleton.

He finished with 40, scoring 10 straight points in the final 2:07 of the game, often by running a pick-and-roll with Antetokounmpo the Suns couldn’t stop. The Bucks don’t always win pretty — 40.2% shooting overall, 24.1% on 3-pointers — but they find a way. Champions need to be gritty, and Wednesday night Milwaukee was just that.

“It’s a grind. A lot of playoff games, especially when it comes late in the fourth quarter, it’s a grind,” Middleton said. “Just got to find a way to get it, get loose balls, get rebounds, figure out a way to get stops against great players. That’s all I can really say about it. It’s a grind.”

Milwaukee won the grind late and the result was a 109-103 Bucks win that evens the NBA Finals at 2-2.

Game 5 is back in Phoenix on Saturday night.

For much of the night, it looked like Devin Booker was going to win the Suns this game.

Monty Williams knew he needed Booker going early and set up a play they kept going to all night — Booker coming up from the baseline off a pindown into a dribble handoff, then attacking. It worked, often forcing a switch that left one of the Bucks bigs trying to slow Booker. That hasn’t worked all series. Booker destroyed Milwaukee from the midrange (he didn’t hit a three all night).

Booker finished the night with 42 points and has now scored more points in his first playoffs than any player in NBA history.

It made up for a rare rough night from Chris Paul, who finished shooting 5-of-13 for 10 points and several key turnovers down the stretch. Holiday’s physical defense all series — and he picked Paul up full court for stretches of this game — seemed to wear CP3 down a little. The Suns also got just six points from Deandre Ayton.

However, ask coach Monty Williams what was the Suns’ downfall and he points to the 17 turnovers. There were points Phoenix led by seven or nine, but turnovers kept them from pulling away.

“The turnovers just crushed us tonight,” Williams said. “We shot 50% from the field, but they got 19 more possessions. Over the course of the game when you just give it up that many times the turnovers and offensive rebounding was a bit of a hill for us to climb.”

Antetokounmpo finished with 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting, but what we will all be talking about for years is his game-changing block of an Ayton alley-oop.

For stretches of this game, it just didn’t look like the Bucks’ night. It’s been the frustrating thing about Milwaukee this playoffs (and for years before) — they stop doing what works. In Game 3 they used their size to pound the Suns inside — 54 points in the paint, taking half their shots in the key.

Wednesday night they got away from that, especially early (only five of their first 18 shots were in the paint), and once again the Bucks couldn’t hit a 3. Part of this was improved transition defense from the Suns — 20.2% of Milwaukee’s possessions in Game 3 started in transition, just 12.4% in Game 4. Milwaukee thrives on easy transition buckets.

Without it, they had to rely more on Middleton. Late in the game, they returned to Antetokounmpo screening for Middleton — after getting away from it, as they are want to do — and it worked.

Now the Bucks need to do it on the road, to find that same grit, in a hostile Phoenix arena. Do that and they have a shot at their first title in 50 years.