Jared Dudley extended his hand, knuckles up, as he headed for the Milwaukee Bucks locker room door at the BMO Harris Bradley Center Wednesday night.
Good night, Jordan.
Khris Middleton’s head shook in surprise at hearing the name, as he was sitting in his chair, facing his locker and Dudley’s fist was in his face. He smiled and returned the pound.
"He’s been huge. He’s been playing like MJ," Dudley said just before heading out the door. "MJ right here."
Middleton may not be playing at Michael Jordan-type levels, exactly, but after a 30-point effort against the Magic last week – the second time he hit that threshold in three games – it’s fair to say his teammates have had to rely on the 23-year-old guard to fill up the box score since the trade of leading scorer Brandon Knight in mid-February.
"We just need him. We just need him," forward John Henson said. "We need him to score for us to win.
"If we can play good defense and have a guy scoring for us – and he takes all the right shots – we’ll be fine."
Since Knight was traded on Feb. 19, Middleton has seen his minutes go up, but also his scoring output.
In 13 games since the trade, the guard's minutes have risen to 36.4 per game, up from 27.1, and easily is tops on the team and has surpassed Knight's previous team-leading workload of around 32 minutes per game. Middleton is also averaging 18.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists while shooting an incredible 48 percent from beyond the 3-point line since the deal.
It seemed, from the outside, that such an increase would happen. Middleton and fellow shooting guard O.J. Mayo were asked prior to the team’s first game after the trade if they felt they would have to shoulder more of a scoring load.
Each demurred, instead saying they wouldn’t go out of their way to look for more shots.
And while, now, it can be proven that Middleton is indeed getting more shots (averaging 15 per game now compared to 9.2 pre-trade), he doesn’t believe his teammates are specifically looking for him to do so.
"I mean, I don’t think so," he said. "We’re just playing more together. Just a lot more touches. ‘BK’ was a scorer. He did that for us. So when he’s gone, it’s a group effort. Everybody gets more touches, everybody just tries to make the right play and find each other."
And, coincidentally, Mayo and Jerryd Bayless have been hampered with injuries and have missed games, which means Middleton’s minutes have predictably gone up, as has his point production.
To him, it’s a function of the offense – and who is and isn’t available – rather than a conscious effort to score more.
"Playing in rhythm, just not forcing it, playing within the offense," he said. "Playing off Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and Mike (Carter-Williams). Those guys, they’re drivers, they get in the paint and create, so as long as I spread the floor it’s going to open things up for them, too."
But, while this is happening organically – at least to him and his teammates – others are starting to take notice.
He knows this, but he’s quiet about it, and it’s about making an impact within the construct of the team.
Leading into the all-star break (pre-trade), Middleton watched as Antetokoumpo and Knight fielded question after question about skills challenges, snubs and dunk contests.
Across the locker room, he stood alone.
"This is a big year for me," he told OnMilwaukee.com. "But right now I’m just trying to play my role. Giannis and Brandon, they get all the attention, they deserve it, but I’m fine being that third guy just trying to fill in for everybody else. Just working hard, playing hard, just trying to find what we need on the court an trying to do it for everybody."
How quickly that’s changed.
Well, kind of.
Now, he has to make sure he’s cleaned up before the television cameras turn their lights on. But, his feeling about it all hasn’t been altered.
"Yeah, man. I mean, whatever we gotta do to win, that’s what I want to do," he said after the Orlando game. "As long as I’m playing, I just want to try to do anything to win. If I’m not doing anything to help us win, then I don’t need to be playing."
As far as the front office is concerned, they really like him. That was evident from the very beginning, as big a part of the Brandon Jennings sign-and-trade as Knight was in the summer of 2013.
Middleton wasn’t asked many questions at that introductory press conference, but he was part of the conversation when general manager John Hammond started the battle cry about building a championship caliber team.
Since that time, head coach Jason Kidd has been similarly impressed. Kidd highlights Middleton’s leadership capabilities, and communication on the court with his teammates, as much as his physical abilities.
"I think Khris’ success started way before the season started," Kidd said. "He was here, he was one of the few early guys here in September. He worked extremely hard in the summer. And, you just see the hard work has paid off."
In a few short weeks, the Bucks and Middleton will see just how much so.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.