Bucks’ Khris Middleton set to return from injury Sunday: ‘I can play’

MILWAUKEE — After missing 16 straight games, Milwaukee Bucks small forward Khris Middleton is expecting to return Sunday against the Phoenix Suns.

“I can play,” Middleton said after Saturday’s practice. “That’s what it is right now. Everybody’s going through something at this point. I mean, so I’m good enough to play. Ankle sprains, they linger for a little bit of time, but my ankle is good enough to play on right now without causing severe pain or anything like that. So, I’m good.”

Middleton missed 16 straight games after suffering a left ankle sprain against the Suns on Feb. 6 when Suns forward Kevin Durant closed out near Middleton on a jump shot in the first quarter and Middleton’s left foot landed on Durant’s left foot. Durant was given a flagrant one penalty for a reckless closeout. Middleton continued playing for two minutes after the injury but came out of the game and did not return.

“I mean, (I) just feel good enough to play at this point,” Middleton said. “I’ve been frustrated sitting out for so long, but when you have an ankle sprain as bad as I did, it just takes time. Sometimes, it takes a little bit longer than others, but I’m happy to be back.”

When Middleton talked with reporters about his injury following the Bucks’ game in San Francisco against the Golden State Warriors, he mentioned there was still some swelling in his ankle that he was hoping would go away and he felt like he had one final step that he needed to get through before getting cleared to play.

On Saturday, he discussed part of what he felt was holding him back from returning.

“With injuries a lot and coming back, you’re able to control a lot of your movements and rehab, but once you get into games, especially on the defensive side, it becomes more of a reactive thing,” Middleton said. “And I wasn’t able to react in the way I wanted to off the movement — guarding pick-and-rolls, guarding guys off the dribble — without the comfort I needed to go out there and play. So that was the last little bit of hurdle that I was trying to cross.”

Before the injury, Middleton had appeared in 43 games for the Bucks. Middleton started the season on a minutes limit following right knee surgery shortly after the Bucks lost in the first round of last year’s playoffs to the Miami Heat, and he averaged 14.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists in only 26.3 minutes per game in his 43 appearances.

By the time Middleton suffered the ankle injury, though, he had returned to playing at least 30 minutes each night. In Middleton’s 20 appearances before the ankle sprain, he was averaging 17.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists in 30.6 minutes per game. He played a season-high 38 minutes, 29 seconds in the Bucks’ win over the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 3.

Though Middleton had been taken off of a minutes restriction shortly before the injury, Bucks coach Doc Rivers told reporters that he will be on a minutes limit in Sunday’s game against the Suns.

“He did great today. No hesitation. It looked like Khris Middleton,” Rivers said. “So, we are happy. I’m sure it’ll be a minute something, which coaches just love the minute things. We’ll just figure it out.”

When discussing Middleton’s reinsertion into the Bucks’ lineup, Rivers was brutally honest. He was able to coach Middleton for only three full games before Middleton got hurt in Phoenix. While Rivers has obviously coached against Middleton for over a decade, he admitted he doesn’t know exactly how having Middleton on the floor is going to help the Bucks.

“I don’t know yet because I’ve not had him,” Rivers said. “(Had him in) two games, three games. … So I’m just going to organically watch. I know (I have) some thoughts. I know having the other offensive guy really allows us to play both sides of the floor.

“I thought at times with Dame (Lillard) and Giannis (Antetokounmpo), we got one-side oriented and didn’t move it. We’d swing it and it’d go back to the same side. With Khris on the other side at times, we can now develop going from a two-man game to a three-man game.”

While there are only 15 games left in the regular season and time is running short for the Bucks to get ready for the postseason, Rivers knows that getting the Bucks’ big three of Antetokounmpo, Lillard and Middleton accustomed to Rivers’ game plan on offense won’t happen overnight.

“We put something in the first day (I took over as coach) and we were laughing about it today,” Rivers said. “Because we ran it and everybody was like, ‘What’s this?’ And it’s like, ‘That’s what we put in the first day.’ But it’s a three-man game with those three guys playing it. So, that’s going to be awful for a minute, and that’s fine.

“Even today I kept saying: ‘Just figure it out. Do it. Do something else.’ And it was not very good, I’m being honest. But it’s going to be (good). And so this is another example. You’re still going to run it in games, good or bad. You don’t care because, at the end of the day, we’re trying to get to where we want to go, and if that hurts us right now, it hurts us.”

The Bucks have been trying to get themselves ready for the postseason and a deep title run from the moment Rivers took over as head coach Jan. 26, but without Middleton the last 16 games, the Bucks could work on only so much for the postseason. With Middleton back on the floor, the Bucks can finally get back to trying to unlock the things that are going to allow them to contend for a championship this season.

(Photo: Sam Hodde / Getty Images)

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