Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Credit Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

So far this season, the Milwaukee Bucks haven't exactly looked like a defending NBA champion on course to make a serious run at repeating.

"We definitely started way slower than I think we all wanted to," Khris Middleton said. "But it happens. It has happened. So we've just got to find a way to get ourselves out of this rut."

Heading into Friday night's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Milwaukee, the Bucks are finally looking poised to turn things around after a sub-.500 start.

A big part of that is due to Middleton's return after he missed eight consecutive games after testing positive for COVID-19.

Wednesday's 109-102 win over the Los Angeles Lakers was the first time since Oct. 23 -- the third game of the season -- that Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday were all in the lineup.

With its big three all in action, Milwaukee is 3-0 this season. When one or more of them are out, the Bucks are just 4-8.

"It's the three-headed monster," Milwaukee's Pat Connaughton said. "It's the three guys that make us go."

Though the Bucks have their core back, they're still far from healthy. Brook Lopez hasn't played since the season opener due to a back injury and Donte DiVincenzo has yet to return following June surgery on his left ankle.

But it's a significant step in the right direction.

Milwaukee hopes to keep that momentum going against the Thunder in the second game of a five-game homestand.

"I think this is a good opportunity now that Khris is back for us to start getting back on track," Antetokounmpo said. "Start building some games right here. And we'll see. I can't predict the future, but we're in a good place right now."

For the Thunder, Luguentz Dort figures to spend plenty of time guarding Middleton.

While Dort has been Oklahoma City's top on-ball defender since breaking into the league three years ago as an undrafted free agent, his offensive game has taken a significant step forward lately, with Dort scoring 20 or more points in five consecutive games, including 34 in a 101-89 home win over Houston on Wednesday.

Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said Dort's 14-of-22 shooting performance against the Rockets was a step forward.

"I didn't talk to him about this but last game he was kind of like crashing in there on his drives on a few plays," Daigneault said after that win. "I thought he made progress there. In the lane, he was not reckless at all, made some really good spray-outs, for as much as he scored it. When a guy like that, that's got that kind of substance improves, it's really not surprising. But he's on a nice run right now."

Dort hadn't reached the 20-point milestone more than three times in a row before the current streak and his scoring performance against the Rockets was his second highest in 101 career games.

Daigneault will not be with the Thunder for the three-game road trip, with his wife due to have a baby. Assistant Dave Bliss will be Oklahoma City's acting head coach.

Friday's game is the first of two meetings this season between the teams. Last season, the teams split their series, with each winning at home.

--Field Level Media

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