Middleton’s career night leads Bucks sans Giannis

MILWAUKEE — The league-leading Milwaukee Bucks will clearly go as far as Giannis Antetokounmpo can take them this season.

But there are nights when others steal the show. And Tuesday was one of them.

Khris Middleton posted a personal-best 51 points, 10 rebounds and six assists on 16-for-26 shooting, leading the Bucks to their ninth straight win, a 151-131 rout of the Washington Wizards.

Playing without Antetokounmpo, out with right shoulder soreness, Middleton and the Bucks had their way with Washington en route to their 16th win of the season by 20 or more points.

Middleton, like several players this week, drew inspiration from the late Kobe Bryant.

“I wish it was that easy to say that but, I mean, Kobe was one of my favorite players — if not my favorite player — growing up besides [Michael] Jordan,” he said. “I took a lot from his game. … To go out there and play and put on that type of performance, I definitely can dedicate that game to him as a thank you for what he did for the game.”

Middleton’s previous career high was 43 points at Charlotte on Nov. 1, 2017. His 28 first-half points helped the Bucks become the eighth team in the shot clock era (since 1954-55) to put up 88 points before the break, as they led 88-63. He joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Antetokounmpo as the third player in Bucks history with 50 points and 10 boards in a game.

“He’s just very nuanced and he can sneak up on you with how he gets his baskets,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “So, I think the rest of the league is appreciating him more and more. The success of the team, his individual performances. I think that people who understand the sport know how good he is, and at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter how he’s rated. As long as he’s with us, that’s all we care about.”

Eric Bledsoe contributed 34 points and 10 assists on 11-for-20 shooting as the Bucks improved to 4-0 without Antetokounmpo. All four wins were by double figures.

“It was an awful couple of days,” said Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo, who finished with 16 points. “I think we did a great job of remembering [Bryant] and then focusing on what we needed to do. Khris kind of had that mentality throughout the whole game, he didn’t stop.

“It was great to see him have a great night and it was cool to have everybody smiling, laughing and joking, just enjoying ourselves on such a tough week.”

Watching the performance from her home in South Carolina, Nichelle Middleton, Khris’ mother, already knew the inspiration behind his effort.

“This is crazy,” she told ESPN via text message. “For Kobe!”

Wizards guard Bradley Beal was strong in the losing effort, scoring 47 as he and Middleton nearly accomplished the first dueling 50-point games since Dec. 6, 2000, when Bryant and Antawn Jamison did so as members of the Lakers and Warriors, respectively.

Antetokounmpo was present in the locker room following the game, as a playlist of hip-hop star DaBaby’s music blasted through the speakers. He scribbled 51 on a blank sheet of paper, reminiscent of Wilt Chamberlain‘s iconic 100-point game and made Middleton hold it for a photo.

Middleton exited the locker room with the game ball tucked underneath his arm.

“I’m going to find one,” Middleton said of a special holding place for the ball. “I don’t want to lose it.”

Middleton’s effort comes the week that NBA All-Star reserves are selected. Wizards coach Scott Brooks already confirmed before Tuesday’s tip that he voted for Middleton.

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