Khris Middleton thought Nikola Mirotic tilted a playoff series in Chicago’s favor nearly four years ago when the Bulls beat his Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.
Mirotic will be on Middleton’s side for the postseason this time around.
The Bucks had already surged to the NBA’s best record when general manager Jon Horst got the 6-foot-10 Mirotic, an adept 3-point shooter, in a three-team trade that sent Milwaukee’s Jason Smith and Detroit’s Stanley Johnson to New Orleans. The Pistons got Thon Maker from Milwaukee.
The Pelicans made a similar move to add Mirotic last February, and he helped them rally to make the playoffs and advance to the second round after a season-ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins.
“Another guy that has playoff experience, one,” Middleton said. “Two, he can stretch the floor and he knows how to play. I remember back when we played him in the Chicago series ... and how he changed that series for them, the way he knocked down shots.”
The Bucks are among the more prolific 3-point teams in the NBA, although their percentage is in the middle of the pack.
Behind star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mirotic creates a trio of forwards comfortable behind the arc. Middleton, at 6-7, is second to 7-footer Brook Lopez in made 3-pointers. Both Middleton and Lopez are shooting slightly better than 38 percent. Mirotic is at 37 percent.
“I think we value shooting, so the more shooting we can put on the court, the better,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “It came together and fit, but obviously, we felt good about the team prior to the trade. We feel even better about it now, so it’s just a good opportunity for us.”
The Bucks, who lost to the Bulls in six games in 2015, have reached the playoffs four of the past six seasons but haven’t made it out of the first round. Milwaukee hasn’t won a playoff series in 18 years, with eight first-round exits since a trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001.
Instead of having to rally a team into the playoff picture, Mirotic will try to help keep home-court advantage at least through the East finals, if not throughout the playoffs. The Bucks are two games better than second-place Toronto in the East and West-leading Golden State, the two-time defending NBA champion.
“Jon’s been doing a great job these last couple of years of just trying to find ways to improve our team, little trades here and there, signings here and there, just whatever that can help us win games,” Middleton said. “I think this trade definitely shows that.”
As the Bucks prepared to return home for the second game of a back-to-back against Orlando after winning 122-107 in Dallas on Friday night, Budenholzer wasn’t sure whether Mirotic would make his Milwaukee debut against the Magic.
Two days shy of his 28th birthday, the native of Montenegro was listed with a right calf strain while missing his last seven games with the Pelicans. Mirotic has been limited to 32 games because of injuries in his fifth NBA season.
When Mirotic does make his debut, the Bucks will have six players averaging in double figures.
“I think depth is something we’ve been talking about recently, how positive our depth is,” Budenholzer said. “And now we feel like we’re even deeper. And I think we’re more versatile and I think both those things are important as you go into the playoffs.”
And that’s when Middleton thinks Mirotic could help the Bucks the most.