Middleton feels “100 percent” in return

It almost seemed as if the in-arena announcer made a mistake.

With 4:51 to play in the first quarter against the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer sent Ersan Ilyasova and Khris Middleton into the game following a timeout.

The announcer belted out that Ersan Ilyasova was entering the game for Wesley Matthews.

Then he paused.

Play resumed and the Bucks started passing the ball around the perimeter.

No announcement?

“Now entering the game, No.22, Khris Middleton.”

There it is.

The Bucks all-star forward checked in for Giannis Antetokounmpo, seeing his first action since suffering a left thigh contusion in early November.

No mistake was made. The announcement of his return was more so theatrical timing, and the sellout Fiserv Forum crowd welcomed him back with a round of applause and audible cheering.

Middleton finishes the quarter, scoring seven points and dishing out an assist.

“It definitely felt good to be back out there,” he said post-game. “It felt good to be back out there in front of the home crowd and get the win also.”

He added in that his leg feels “100 percent.”

In total, Middleton logged just under 20 minutes of play and scored 16 points on 5-of-13 shooting.

“Vintage Khris,” head coach Mike Budenholzer called the performance. “He had a couple looks (that didn’t go in) and he could even have had a bigger first night. A couple good open looks. But, overall I thought he was really good offensively. He understands how to get people involved. Can make reads and decisions. He can play for himself but he can play for others, he does a lot of things well.

“I think he just calms the group down, he’s a smart smart player and understands what we want to do. It’s great to have him back.”

Budenholzer acknowledges that Middleton is on a minutes restriction, although he won’t offer up specifics. With that in mind, he’s expected to come off of the bench, at least for the next game. This gives him a better chance at being available down the stretch if needed.

The two discussed that strategy prior to the game, Middleton said he has “trust” in his head coach and that approach.

It paid off against Atlanta, because when Trae Young committed a technical foul late in the fourth quarter, it was Middleton who stepped to the free throw line to officially ice the game with less than a minute to play.

Kash. Bucks lead by nine.

“It’s always great to have one of the best players back,” a relieved Antetokounmpo said about the return of his running mate. “It makes the game a lot easier for everybody. Draws a lot of attention. Creates a lot of lanes.

“He makes plays, he creates a lot of open shots for us. And it’s just good to have him out there healthy and ready to go.”

When asked, Middleton added that there is no mental block with his return either. On his first play, he ran over the top of a set screen, a similar motion to the play where he was injured just over two weeks ago.

“You get knee’d every now and then it the game,” he said. “It happens, it’s part of the sport, just never had anything that bad before. I hope it won’t happen again, but if it does, it does, and i’ll be ready for it.”