Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton return and the Bucks look like themselves again

DETROIT — The Pistons last played on Thursday in Paris, France, against the Bulls, where they lost, 126-108, to drop to 12-36 on the season. After flying back to the United States and trying to get reacclimated to their own time zone for a few days, they were scheduled to get back on the floor against the Bucks on Monday night in Detroit.

On Sunday, the Bucks listed Khris Middleton (right knee soreness) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (left knee soreness) as probable, which suggested Monday would be the first time Middleton played since Dec. 15 and Antetokounmpo’s first game since Jan. 11 against the Hawks. If both played, it would be the first time the Bucks would have their full roster healthy the entire season.

“I saw that. I really appreciate it,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said with a smile during his pre-game press conference in response to a question about the Bucks’ welcome back present to his team. “I’m sure it’s good for their organization. It’s good for the league for them to be back playing. But we can’t dictate that. We have to come out and continue to play to our identity, play hard.”

Few coaches in the league know the dangers of going up against the Bucks led by Antetokounmpo and Middleton better than Casey.

As head coach of the Raptors, Casey went head-to-head against them in their second playoff series in 2017, which was actually the pair’s first playoff series as the Bucks’ top offensive options. Two years later, when Casey took over in Detroit, the Bucks swept the Pistons in the first round of the playoffs, which was the first playoff series victory for Antetokounmpo and Middleton. In the regular season, things haven’t gone any better, as the Bucks had taken 15 of 16 against Casey’s Pistons in the last five years leading into Monday’s game.

The strength of that duo was on full display once again in Monday’s 150-130 win for the Bucks, which quickly turned into a lopsided affair befitting of the recent history between the two teams.

After one quarter, the Bucks led, 49-24. Antetokounmpo, who had missed the Bucks’ last five games, looked fresh and scored 20 points in the first quarter. The Bucks’ two-time NBA MVP made all six of his first quarter shots, including two 3-pointers, and also added two rebounds and two assists in a game that felt over after just one quarter. It was clear from opening tip that the Pistons did not have an answer for Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo ended the game with 29 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, but by the time Middleton entered the game with 4:32 remaining in the first quarter, it seemed as though the Bucks already had the game in hand because the Pistons would never have big enough bodies to build a strong enough wall to stop Antetokounmpo.

“It feels good to be out there with the team again, play, run up and down, make some plays,” Antetokounmpo said after the game. “Can never take it for granted. Definitely just miss it. I miss it. I miss being around my teammates, just miss playing basketball. I just missed being out there and competing. But felt good. Energy wise I felt good.

“But obviously it’s a little bit out of rhythm, but getting into my game hopefully I can get a rhythm, get back to being aggressive, go out there and compete and create art.”

While things came easy for Antetokounmpo in his return from a five-game layoff, it was not quite as smooth for Middleton in his first game action since Dec. 15, 2022.

On his first touch of the game, Middleton shuffled his pivot feet and got called for a travel. But the next time down the floor, Middleton’s footwork was a little bit cleaner and he hit a pull-up 3, just like he has so many times before.

“Felt good, of course,” Middleton said. “Especially the first shot was a 3-ball off the dribble for the first one in a while, but just credit that to the work I’ve put in the last couple weeks. Just playing pick-up, working on my game, not being afraid of the moment or scared to shoot it.”

While in Miami with the team, Middleton spoke with The Athletic about the frustrations of daily rehab and wanting to get back to just playing basketball with his teammates, but that work continued over the last two weeks. Leading up to his return from him on Monday night, Middleton told reporters that one of the keys was being able to push his body hard with five-on-five live contact on consecutive days without seeing an increase in swelling and not having soreness.

“Just being able to push my body and getting a lot of good live contact with the guys, the coaches, the guys on the team or the Herd guys,” Middleton told reporters after Monday’s shootaround, when asked about the strides he made in the last week. “Just trying to return to get ready to play, get in shape, get stronger and knowing that I wasn’t going to run into the same problems that I had last time. I won’t say that it won’t happen again, hopefully it doesn’t. I just tried to do the best that I could during this time that I had off to get myself fully healthy.”

As Middleton referenced, he tried to get back on the floor once already this season. After missing the first 20 games of the season, Middleton returned to action on Dec. 2 against the Lakers, but that comeback was short lived as he played in seven of the Bucks’ next eight games before being sidelined again following the Bucks’ Dec. 15 matchups in Memphis and missing 18 more games before Monday’s tilt in Detroit.

On Monday, Middleton put up eight points, two rebounds and four assists in 15 minutes against the Pistons, but he also committed six turnovers, some of which just felt like sloppy plays that go along with getting rid of the rust of not playing in an NBA game over a month.

“Felt great,” Middleton said of getting back on the floor. “Legs were under me. It was pretty good. Turnovers and defense is something that’s got to be better, but I think that will come along with a little bit of time.”

It wasn’t perfect, but the Bucks took care of business against a lesser team in Detroit on Monday as they played their first game of the season together with all of their major pieces in place, even if their minutes were limited. And that felt like the first step for them in getting back to being the title contender in recent seasons.

“How many points did we score today? 150, ”Antetokounmpo asked in the visiting locker room after the game, while icing his body post-game. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to score 150 every single night, but once we’re at full strength, this team is really good. There’s a lot of threats out there. People understand their roles … as long as we can stay healthy, we have a chance and that’s all you can ask for.”

And while the whole team is important and the Bucks will need contributions from up and down the roster, the Bucks’ championship core is built on the duo that has been together in Milwaukee for a decade now.

“They’ve been together — I guess, I don’t know if you can say longer than any of us, but — for longer than any of us that are on this current roster or on this current coaching staff. Maybe Jon Horst outdates them,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said before the game. “They’re the ones that have built this program, built this organization to what it is.

“They play at an amazingly high level. There’s a connection. Their skill sets marry up well together when they’re at their best. We feel like we obviously have a really good roster and a really good team that needs those two guys or is at its best with those two guys.”

In Milwaukee, everything starts with Antetokounmpo and Middleton. And, on Monday, it felt like it started all over again.

(Photo of Giannis Antetokounmpo: Brian Sevald / NBAE via Getty Images)

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