WITH 20 SECONDS remaining in overtime, Khris Middleton's finger is on the button. A frenetic Game 1 that was gasping for air had slowed to a halt when Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic slung a 3-pointer from the left corner to tie it at 107.
A groan, then a hush, then a quick survey of the bench to see whether the Bucks want to call timeout and come up with a plan.
This afternoon, there will be no timeout, no fancy whiteboard artistry or huddle rallying cries. Though the Bucks employ the NBA's most valuable player in Giannis Antetokounmpo and a reliable point guard they paid a king's ransom for during the offseason in Jrue Holiday, Middleton is the plan. The job of hunting a shot in the mud of a final possession is all his.
Middleton must not turn the ball over under any circumstance, and he must get off a clean shot, but -- and this is the most important wrinkle -- that shot must come at the very last instant. Too soon, and the Heat could control the rebound and get a final possession of their own. Too late, and the Bucks squander a chance to start the task of avenging last year's mortifying loss as the NBA's best regular-season team to the sixth-seeded Heat 4-1 in the conference semifinals.
So that's the balance on the Middleton account with 14 seconds remaining when Holiday passes the ball to him at the top of the key, then kindly clears to the left corner, giving Middleton both the spotlight and the burden to set things right for the Bucks.
An ancillary benefit of Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer's decision not to call timeout: Middleton draws as his defender, Heat guard Duncan Robinson, a sharpshooter who has impressed with his quick trigger but less so with his one-on-one defensive work. Opposite Robinson, Middleton is hunched over as he cradles the ball. Robinson stares back, then nervously rotates his head right, then left, then right, then right again, anticipating a screen. And with a little over six seconds remaining, Bucks center Brook Lopez scampers up to Robinson's right hip. Lopez slips the screen, which leaves Heat forward Trevor Ariza to switch onto Middleton.
Middleton doesn't have time to size up a second defender, so he takes a single hard dribble to his left with 5.2 seconds remaining, then changes course. With a crossover between his legs, Middleton moves right with the ball, Ariza in pursuit on his left shoulder. With 3.5 seconds remaining, there's a reunion with Robinson, who has left Lopez and darts at Middleton.
For a man who has three seconds to get off a shot, Middleton is dealing with a precarious set of circumstances. For one, he's moving in the wrong direction -- away from the basket and toward the right sideline. Even if there were a corner Middleton could reasonably turn, there's not enough time. So with one fluid motion, he picks up his dribble, elevates, twists his right hip 105 degrees counterclockwise and -- fading backward toward the Miami bench -- heaves the ball over four outstretched arms.
When the ball drops through the net with half a second left on the game clock, Middleton jogs down the sideline, nearly colliding with official Tyler Ford before snaking his way back to the Bucks' bench, his first run-and-bump for teammate Pat Connaughton.
Middleton's shot isn't just a decisive game winner with viral highlight appeal. It's a persuasive rebuttal to a persistent knock against the Bucks that their dynamic MVP, unimpeachable culture, stalwart defense and mastermind coach can't compensate for the team's fatal defect: an inability to find -- and hit -- big shots at crucial junctures.
Following the shellacking by Miami last summer, this specific whisper became louder, both from outside and inside the Bucks: The offense needs to leverage the attention paid to the MVP and run more of the late offense through Middleton, especially if he has the more favorable matchup. That twist was evident in Game 1 of the first round, facing off against Robinson. While it's a dynamic that's unheard of as a regular strategy (imagine LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry regularly handing the ninth inning over to someone else), it might be a scheme that could unlock the Bucks' championship potential as the competition gets stiffer in the postseason.
"We play opposite games," says Antetokounmpo. "It's a good thing to have -- two of your best players who do different things."
There's a growing body of evidence that suggests the Milwaukee Bucks feature both an MVP and a quintessential closer -- an ace and a strikeout stopper -- yet often it's not the same player.