Giannis Antetokounmpo And Khris Middleton Are Back And So Are The Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks have won three straight games since Khris Middleton (left) and Giannis Antetokounmpo … [+] returned from extended absences due to knee injuries. (Photo by Thearon W Henderson/Getty Images)

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It was only matter of time, really, before the Milwaukee Bucks finally showed flashes of dominance most observers expected of them heading into and through first few weeks of the 2022-23 National Basketball Association season.

A 141-131 victory Friday night at Indiana extended the Bucks’ winning streak to three games, their longest since taking four in a row to open December, and kept Milwaukee 2 1/2 games back of Boston for the top seed in the Eastern Conference .

The secret to the Bucks’ recent success is easy to identify. For the first time all season, head coach Mike Budenholzer has nearly an entire roster at his disposal now that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton have returned from knee injuries.

That’s not to say the Bucks are heading into cube control mode for the final 33 games of the regular season.

In fact, their full-strength status didn’t even last one full game before reality once again reared its ugly head by sending center Bobby Portis to the locker room in the fourth quarter against Detroit with a sprained ankle and MCL that will leave him sidelined for at least the next two weeks.

Losing Portis, whose underdog attitude and all-gas-no-break style has made him a fan favorite in Milwaukee, is a massive blow for the Bucks. The 6-foot-11 big man had appeared in each of Milwaukee’s first 47 games and was averaging career-highs with 14.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.

His production helped the Bucks stay afloat while navigating the absences of Antetokounmpo, Ingles and Middleton and with that group healthy, Portis was expected to provide valuable depth on a roster that doesn’t have much in terms of size

So far, reserve guard Pat Connaughton has picked up some of Portis’ minutes. More importantly to the Bucks, he’s also picked up a significant chunk of Portis’ rebounding with 20 in his last two games.

Through his first 31 games this season, the 6-foot-5 Connaughton was averaging just 4.4 boards per game. He pulled down a season-high 12 against Denver then eight more Friday night against Indiana.

“I’ve still found ways to play bigger than who I am and I think Coach Bud does a great job utilizing me in different areas,” Connaughton said earlier this week. “Playing the four is something that is not new to me, and when you do screen and you do roll, Jrue (Holiday) and I, Giannis and I, we all have some continuity with me screening now, it’s not just about getting to the rim and finishing, it’s about being a playmaker in the roll and I think that’s where I can be most dangerous. You got guys cutting, you got shooters around me.”

Budenholzer has other options to replace Portis in Sandro Mamukelashvili or Jordan Nowra and the team could try to entice Serge Ibaka to return to the team after recently agreeing to trade the veteran center to a team where he’d be a better fit. Should Portis’ absence run longer than expected. Here’s also the chance that Milwaukee addresses the situation ahead of the trade deadline or on the buyout market, though such moves would be complicated due to the Bucks’ current roster and salary cap situations.

Regardless of how they handle it, the Bucks are confident that they can handle it and that this latest obstacle is nothing more than a challenge that will help them be ready come playoff time.

“It’s part of the NBA,” Connaughton said. “Unfortunately injuries are a part of it.

“I think, for us, we’ve always had the next-man-up mentality. So, no matter what ends up happening with Bobby’s diagnosis, I think for us it’s about making sure whoever’s ready and whoever’s dressed that night, we go out and we play Bucks basketball and we do that to the best of our ability.”

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