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Milwaukee's best-kept secret

The alley-oop is a beautiful act of violence. The ball majestically looping through the air until it is forcefully thrown down with the power of a small tank rattling the rim.

The league’s best and most frequent practitioners of the alley-oop define exactly what makes the play special. The alley is made by the dynamic decision-makers, guys that can bend the defense to their will because of their speed, quickness, shooting, or passing ability. The oop is completed by the ruthless rim finishers who, through either size, athleticism, or leaping ability, can soar through the air and finish a dunk with authority.

Looking at the league’s Top 10 alley-oop combos this season, you’ll find a number of the players you’d expect to find on each side of the play. James Harden, Rajon Rondo, Lou Williams, and Russell Westbrook all find their way into the Top 10 combos as the playmakers manipulating defenders. Clint Capela, DeAndre Jordan, Anthony Davis, and Dwight Howard obviously make the Top 10 combos as those eviscerating the rim on the lobs they catch from their smaller ball-lobbing teammates.

Combing through the list makes sense until you see this:

#6 – Khris Middleton and John Henson.

According to data from Second Spectrum, the Milwaukee Bucks’ duo of Middleton and Henson have completed the sixth most alley-oops of any pair of players in the NBA this season. Few will mistake Middleton for Harden or Westbrook or Henson for Jordan or Davis, but that hasn’t mattered much as the Middleton-to-Henson lob has become a staple of the Bucks offensive attack.

“It’s a chemistry thing. He’s big enough and tall enough and long enough to throw over a defense,” Henson said. “People don’t really realize how big Khris is. He’s 6’8” with like a seven-foot wingspan. So, if you set the screen and he gets downhill, he’s good enough where the big has to honor his shot or his floater, so if the big gets caught in the middle, he could shoot, but he throws it to me. A dunk is easier than a 12-foot floater.”

Chemistry can be a difficult thing to find, but Middleton and Henson have now been teammates for five years and used each one of those years to better understand each other’s games. Henson thinks they really started to click in their second or third year together, but Middleton thinks it came a little bit sooner than that.

“My first year here,” Middleton said, when asked about when he felt their chemistry truly developed. “We played a lot together. It was a terrible year for us, but we got to expand our games. I was a floater guy at first and then I noticed I was taking the floater with two guys and he was just there at the rim. So, I told him to start looking for it.”

And that’s exactly what Henson has done. There is a level of trust and understanding between the two that only really forms with time. At this point, Henson thinks their roles have actually reversed from when Middleton first needed to tell him to look for the lob more often.

“I think he sees me more than I see him,” Henson said. “He sees me loading up and he’s got a shot and he’s a little far out, he kind of just throws it up. We developed that kind of chemistry where I kind of just know when he wants to pass, when he’s going to shoot. It works.”

A side pick-and-roll is the perfect time to look for an alley-oop and the Bucks have become quite fond of running that action with Middleton and Henson since Joe Prunty took over for Jason Kidd in the end of January.

The Bucks like to clear out the right side of the floor and give Middleton the ball between half-court and the three-point line. Henson will approach Middleton’s defender and try to free him to the right sideline. Since there is no baseline help, the big covering Henson will have to step up to keep Middleton from taking his deadly mid-range jumper, which leaves a lane open for Henson to run freely to the rim.

In a February 23rd meeting with the Toronto Raptors, the Bucks ran it so often Toronto actually got used to covering it and started to make it incredibly difficult, but Middleton just used the length Henson described earlier to make the tough, on-target pass.

Creating alley-oop opportunities out of the pick-and-roll is how most duos in the Top 10 create their chances, but Middleton and Henson get a couple additional chances on something just slightly different: the pin-down.

For years now, the Bucks have run their shooting guards off of pin-down screens for jumpers in the elbow area. Though it limits their opportunities behind the three-point line, it does create a chance at a quick lob in tight quarters. Henson mentioned that he first started to get the look with former Bucks guard O.J. Mayo, but Middleton has been able to take that to a higher level with his size and length.

“I’m trying to get the guard to trail,” Henson said. “And I don’t want to just crack him because I want to give myself a runway. So, you know, if it’s a little brush screen and the guard can trail and I roll fast and I roll hard, it’s tough for the big to make a decision. And the big has to make a decision to either guard Khris or guard me and Khris does a great job of reading it.”

Middleton explained the key to the play was his aggressiveness off the screen. If he is not aggressive and looking for his shot, the play will not work. No matter what though, as long as Henson sets a good screen, he feels as though the pin-down action is on him to make work. Setting the perfect screen can be a challenge at times though.

“It’s more of like a brush. A guard’s coming off, you just bump him a little bit with the backside a little bit,” Henson sticks out his backside a little bit here to mimic hitting a guard enough to give Middleton space. “Not a big screen. Khris comes off and the big either has to step up or get back. And Khris is big enough, tall enough, strong enough that the guard can’t do anything if he’s stuck behind him.”

When told about some of the other guys, including James Harden, on the list, Middleton joked we should all look at him in the same light as a playmaker before assuring the assembled crowd he was just joking and modestly saying, “I’m just happy it works.”

After admitting surprise like Middleton about showing up in the Top 10, Henson was a little more assertive, saying with a big smile on his face, “The guys on the list are high IQ guys, so maybe you should give Khris a little more credit for his passing acumen.”

Maybe we should.