The Milwaukee Bucks have already felt that ineffable feeling, the one you only get when all five players on the court are connected, when the ball is popping around and everyone is in the right place and everything is, somehow, easy. If they can hold onto that, Bucks forward Khris Middleton told CBS Sports, if they can make that kind of basketball the core of what they do, then they know they are capable of something special.
"We definitely have had many of those conversations, practicing," Middleton said. "We saw it come to fruition against Chicago in our first preseason game."
Milwaukee won that game 116-82, and the style mattered more than the score. The Bucks spaced the floor and passed the ball like they haven't in years. They took more 3-pointers than 2-pointers, and franchise Giannis Antetokounmpo confidently swished one off the dribble. If you believed that Mike Budenholzer would come to Milwaukee and revolutionize the team, you probably felt pretty damn smart.
"We realized that we can't be a team or we don't have to be a team that is just pounding the ball in one spot, thing to take tough shots, isolation and whatnot," Middleton said. "We can move the ball. We can penetrate and kick and find open guys and get easier shots. That's something that Bud preached to us all camp so far, and guys are starting to take notice of that and try to make it happen."
On the phone, Middleton said that he thinks 2018-19 will be fun and exciting, but that's what everybody says this time of year. In this case, though, it came off as genuine. There is an undeniable buzz around the Bucks because their offense is different, their defense is different and they just opened a state-of-the-art arena. According to Middleton, all of that adds up to a fresh start and a new vibe. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and flow.
CBS Sports: What's unique or distinctive about training camp with Bud in charge?
Khris Middleton: It was a weird training camp, where we didn't do these four-hour practices; these brutal, long, exhausting practices. It was more of get in, let's get our work in, let's learn the new system, let's learn the new plays, let's get our shots up and let's take care of our bodies. It was all in-and-out, very efficient-style practice.
CBS: Did you like that?
KM: I definitely did. I mean, it was weird because I've been through seven training camps now and that was the first time I didn't feel like I could not walk after practice. After the second practice, going in the next day, I felt good. I felt fresh and ready to go again.
CBS: That feels like the modern modern approach, right? Everybody's concerned about sports science and player rest?
KM: Definitely. We've had conversations with Bud so far regarding that: How we need to take care of our bodies, how he feels our minutes have to come down, how hard or how long we should be practicing or whatnot. He's definitely on that new wave, I guess, where it's more of taking care of your body, more watching the minutes and watching the loads that you put on out there.
CBS: Is any part of you a bit suspicious of all the hype? I ask because this isn't the first time the Bucks have been hyped.
KM: Yeah, I mean, of course, you can't be too involved in the hype. For us, we have to do our job. We can't say or believe that we're just going to be this great team that everybody believes we can be or wants us to be. We have to go out there and actually put in the work. And I think we've been doing that for the last couple of weeks in camp.
CBS: People are picking Giannis for MVP. He improves every season. Should we expect yet another big jump?
KM: I think so, definitely. I think you're going to see a whole new Giannis this year. With that being said, it's more of a guy not hesitating more and shooting more freely. [He will take] 3s and midrange and whatever, but without him hesitating or trying to force the issue. I think this offense is going to be perfect for him, where he won't have to put too much stress on his body. He can take what the defense gives him. And then there's going to be times when he just puts his head down and goes and does what he does best. But I think you're going to see a new Giannis regarding shooting 3s more and just playing more freely.
CBS: Bud gets a lot of attention, the team also added shooting bigs. I don't know how often, if ever, you've played 5-out in the past few years -- how different is it?
I see the gaps that I've never seen before regarding spacing this year. It's going to work to Giannis' benefit and Eric [Bledsoe's] benefit the most. Those guys are very quick and players that can attack the paint and find lanes and gaps and whatnot. With this offense, it's going to be a lot easier. They'll be able to get by one guy and then there's gonna be a late defender and they'll have the decision to lay the ball in, make their play, or kick it out and find somebody on the perimeter with that 5-man being out beyond the 3-point line.
CBS: Considering he won Rookie of the Year two years ago, people don't talk that much about Malcolm Brogdon. A smart player like him in this system -- what do you think he's going to show people?
KM: He's going to show 'em that he's a complete basketball player. People don't talk about Malcolm as much, but we definitely know how good Malcolm is for our team. He's a solid point guard, he could be a starting point guard on any other team. He's a guy that can shoot the 3, can penetrate, can find guys. This offense, I think, is perfect for him, too. It's a lot of motion, a lot of movement, which he was used to in college, where he could be off the ball, moving, or with the ball making plays.
CBS: On an individual level, you were lights-out in the Boston series. At the same time, lots of people thought you guys would win. How do you reflect on that now, and what can you take from that into the season?
KM: Yeah, it was definitely a disappointing loss of a series. We know how good Boston is and could be, but we expected or we told ourselves we should be winning that series. And we couldn't get it done. But to take away from that experience, I mean, we played well at home; just, on the road, we could not find a way to steal a game. And that's the way you win a championship. You have to find ways to win on that road.
CBS: Can you take something from that individually, too? The year before against the Raptors, you weren't really healthy, but you got back to the playoffs and did what you did.
KM: Yeah, I mean, the Raptors series was tough for me. I was going through a hamstring injury, too. I still had some stuff going on with my body where I wasn't right for the next couple weeks afterward. But then in that Boston series, I felt 100 percent like myself, the player I was capable of being. Which is a lights-out shooter, a guy that can make plays and just, really, a scorer. But Boston, they're a great team. They just made it tough on me, just tried to wear me down over time, which kind of caught up to me in Game 7. But I thought it was a great series for me. Just couldn't do enough, I felt, to get a win.
CBS: What has Bud told you about taking 3s vs. operating in the midrange? Obviously he usually doesn't love those shots, but you were one of the best in the league at doing it.
KM: We've come to an agreement on where and when those midrange shots will come, and I agree with it. The way we win now, the way guys win now, is shooting the 3-ball. I know at times I'm going to have to just take the 3-ball when it's there instead of trying to get more to that midrange. But the midrange game is definitely one of my strong suits. I can't give that up. I know I'm going to have to take a couple less ones, but it's still going to be there for me, I'm definitely going to still shoot it.
CBS: What do you mean when you say you know when and where you can take them?
KM: It comes to the point where, if a midrange shot is there, I'm going to take it. If I'm open, I have to shoot that shot. That's a great shot for the team and myself. If I've got one or two guys contesting the shot, maybe try to find something else better, which makes sense. I mean, I took a lot of tough shots in the past where, in this offense, in this scheme, I shouldn't have to rely on that too much. Either I can create and find a guy for an open shot, maybe a 3 or a layup, or I can just take my 3-ball when it's there.