MILWAUKEE — Khris Middleton is known for his sweet mid-range jumper, but he is killing the Celtics softly in other ways this series.
Take his two big defensive plays in the final minute of the Bucks’ 104-102 victory on Sunday, which allowed Milwaukee to even the best-of-seven series at 2-2.
Middleton was credited with a block while disrupting a Celtics fast break, a play that led to Malcolm Brogdon’s go-ahead 3-pointer from the corner with 33.5 seconds left.
Then the 6-foot-inch-8 forward was matched up on Celtics forward Marcus Morris on the game’s final play, with Milwaukee clinging to a 2-point lead. Middleton held his ground and forced a tough 14-foot fadeaway shot that Morris missed, allowing the seventh-seeded Bucks to head back to Boston with a fighting chance in a suddenly gripping series.
“[Celtics coach] Brad Stevens throws a lot of things at you, so everybody has to be ready,” Middleton said. “Once I saw the ball go up in the air, I knew it was going to be an iso with Morris.
“I just tried to contest it; he’s a tough shot maker. He got me with the same look in the first half and he made it. This time I just tried to challenge it, using my length. I thought it was good from my view.”
Middleton scored 23 points — his fourth game with 20 or more in the series — and added 6 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 assists, and 2 blocks. He had just 5 points in the fourth quarter but sank a key 3-pointer to help stave off Boston’s comeback.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had the game-winning tip-in of a Brogdon miss with 5.1 seconds left, and the Bucks again received huge bench contributions from Jabari Parker, Thon Maker, and Matthew Dellavedova.
The result likely would have been different had Celtics guard Jaylen Brown scored on a fast break with 40 seconds left and Boston leading by 1 point. But Middleton broke up the play and Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe corralled the ball.
“I’m really not worried which one it was (a steal or a block),” Middleton said. “I’m just glad we got the ball back. Giannis got a great look; it was contested. We’ll live with that all day from Giannis.
“Then with Brown coming back (on the break), he’s an aggressive player, an aggressive scorer. So I’m just trying to make a play on the ball, use my body and somehow I got a hand on the ball. Bled did a great job of sprinting back. We’ve had a lot of plays like that this year where you just try to slow them down.”
The Bucks squandered a 20-point lead as Brown led the Celtics’ determined comeback while scoring a game- and career-high 34 points.
“The most important thing was that we trust one another, and I think sometimes that has been missing,” Antetokounmpo said. “But today no matter what happened we trusted one another and that’s why we came out with the win.”
Brogdon drove to the basket on the Bucks’ final possession and threw up a tough shot as Al Horford defended, but Antetokounmpo swooped in for the deciding tip-in.
“If I miss, I know Giannis is coming in to put it back,” Brogdon said. “At the end of the day in the playoffs, we know we have the best player on the floor. We rely on him and he comes through.”
Parker put on a second straight strong performance with 16 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 steals, and his energy helped the Bucks build a 16-point halftime lead.
“For him to come off the bench for us, it’s a huge boost,” Middleton said. “We just want him to be ready and stay locked in. The defensive end was really what got us going. He came in and did a great job of helping guys.”
Maker produced five blocks for the second straight game and played 31 minutes off the bench while clogging the middle of the lane.
The 7-1 center applied some of the lessons he has learned from former Celtics great Kevin Garnett, who has served as a mentor and part-time practice instructor for him during the past two seasons.
Garnett also sent Maker a video featuring some tough talk and play from the Big Ticket’s NBA career.
“KG said, ‘You guys have nothing to lose,’ ” Maker said. “And he sent me that video. He was talking about the playoffs, that there’s no easy road. Even if he’s your friend, you’re not friends. You can shake hands afterwards.
“Go out there and be aggressive. He had multiple clips on there of him just playing aggressive and angry. There were almost fights out there.”
Celtics center Aaron Baynes and Maker were whistled for a double foul after they got tangled up and fell to the floor early in the fourth quarter. Maker kept his cool.
“I’m not complaining or anything, but it wasn’t a double foul,” Maker said. “But we need something like that. It gets me going, it gets the crowd going. It brings us even closer as a team.”
Maker said he wasn’t too down when he did not play in Game 1 of the series, in the Celtics’ 113-107 overtime win. He made a late appearance in Game 2 before getting his chance in Game 3 in Milwaukee due to a back injury to starting center John Henson.
“I was just there on the sidelines supporting my guys,” Maker said of the first two games. “I’m a team-first guy.”
There’s no question he will be playing in Game 5 in Boston.