NBA playoffs 2021: Khris Middleton and the Milwaukee Bucks have a dimension the Atlanta Hawks can't reach

The first 3-pointer came from basically nothing: a simple flare on the right wing, where Milwaukee Bucks' forward Khris Middleton caught the ball in isolation, jab stepped a couple of times, held the ball to wait for a dummy screen, then jab stepped again.

There was enough space to pull, and Middleton let fly his patented set shot jumper, cutting the Atlanta Hawks' lead to four with 7:12 remaining in Sunday's Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.

It came a little more than a minute after Trae Young walked off the Hawks bench and back into the game, stifling a grimace because of a sore right ankle from a freak tweak after he stepped on referee Sean Wright's foot late in the third quarter. After a demoralizing blowout in Milwaukee just two nights ago, Young had been in a groove, making good on his promise to be better as the Hawks looked to bounce back.

The second 3 came almost exactly a minute after the first -- and again outside of any set play. Again on the right wing, with Young backing off in search of help, Middleton casually dropped it. Young answered it with a rainmaking 3 to give the Hawks back a lead, but Middleton responded 13 seconds later with an 18-footer. Young missed his response badly, hitting all glass.

Middleton, smelling blood, splashed another 3 -- his third in less than two minutes and fourth of the final quarter -- to give Milwaukee the lead for good with 5:13 remaining.

"Once I realized I hit two in a row, I just told myself to keep trying to find a shot to get up knowing there was a good chance it was going in," Middleton said.

That might be the understatement of the night.

By the end of Game 3, Middleton torched Atlanta for 38 points as the Bucks pulled away, 113-102 to grab a 2-1 series lead. And while the Hawks limped to the final buzzer -- their offense low on options without Young's magic show available -- Middleton juxtaposed it with simplistic, ice-cold bucket-getting.

The fourth-quarter tally: Middleton 20, Hawks 17.

"What I saw today was unbelievable. It was freakin' unbelievable," Bucks star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said. "Carried the team at the end. He turned the ball over like two times, and after that, he was locked in. He was like, 'Pass me the ball.' And we gave him the ball. There's moments we know when to set screens for him, we know when he wants the ball, and that was the moment.

"We were like, 'Get the hell out of the way, give him the ball, take us home, Khris,' and that's what he did."

Playoff games are often won in the half-court grind, with contested midrange pull-ups and isolation turnaround jumpers the deciding offense. Ball movement, floor spacing and 3-point shooting represent the systematic approach for most every NBA team these days; but when a playoff game hits the drudgery of a fourth quarter, when every possession is a chore, bucket-getters like Middleton rise to the surface.

In the fourth quarter on Sunday, Middleton went 6-for-11 on contested shots, tied for the most contested makes in a fourth quarter this postseason, according to ESPN Stats and Information research.

It's not that the Bucks executed some kind of high-minded offense. It was merely Middleton, in his lab, creating space in the randomness of the game, his lava-hot right hand the only playcall coach Mike Budenholzer needed.

"He's just a hell of a player," Budenholzer said. "There's lots of great players in this league, and we know what Khris can do for us and how we can win with him. That's what's most important."

The Bucks' best player is Antetokounmpo, and the two-time MVP was great in Game 3, scoring 33 points with 11 rebounds in 41 minutes. But this is the formula of the Bucks: to divide and conquer between their All-Stars, no traditional alpha-bravo hierarchy dictating who needs shots and who needs to decoy. It's the straightforward solution to what otherwise would be the fatal flaw to the Bucks, if not for the humility of their best player.

"I think our team is so unselfish, if anybody has it going, that ball goes to them. Some games it's me, some games it's Giannis, some games it's Jrue [Holiday]," Middleton said. "We all have a great feel about who has it going, who has the best matchup and who can create the best look."

Even in the postgame news conference, when a reporter brought up the fourth quarter and how that could be Antetokounmpo's time to take over -- to do the kind of things MVPs are supposed to do in the playoffs -- Antetokounmpo shook his head back and forth in disagreement mid-question.

"Nah, I trust this guy to death," Antetokounmpo said with Middleton beside him. "If he wants the ball, he gets it. Simple as that."

Diversity in offense is a luxury of the Bucks, and one the Hawks struggled to replicate with Young limited after suffering his ankle sprain. The Bucks have had their struggles in crunch time, sometimes pinning their hopes to Antetokounmpo post-ups or contested Middleton midrange jumpers; but those options are better than what the Hawks were left with sans Young's explosive first step.

And if Young's ankle is going to remain bothersome, coupled with Middleton's formal arrival to the series, the Hawks might have trouble ahead.

"That's what we need from him," Antetokounmpo said of Middleton. "We need him to be aggressive, we need him taking over games, we need him making good decisions to play off him."

Milwaukee's postseason, simplified: When Middleton shoots 40% or better, the Bucks are 9-0. When he doesn't, they're 1-4.

The Bucks can win in a variety of ways, leaning on swarming defense (see Game 2 of this series), a flurry of 3s or the ground-and-pound paint-scoring approach. Their depth of options, though, is a differentiator when all the pieces align.

The Hawks' Game 4 adjustment likely is the ice pack that sits on Young's right ankle -- and the hope that he can summon some of what's made him the darling of the East playoffs. It was there before the injury, with shimmies and struts on display and Young showcasing his mental toughness in an impressive bounce-back game.

The Bucks, though, are hitting a stride, particularly with Middleton hitting his. They have an arsenal Atlanta just might not be able to match along with a culture and approach that enables them to seamlessly tap into it.

It's an unconventional playoff template: Batman letting Robin drive in the clutch. But for the Bucks, it's what works.