Monday, May 23, 2022

Bucks vs. Celtics: Don’t let Jrue Holiday’s stellar defense overshadow his clutch, crucial offensive prowess

Jrue Holiday is used to being overlooked.

Ranked as the No. 3 overall recruit coming out of high school in Southern California, he fell to No. 17 in the 2009 NBA Draft after a disappointing freshman season at UCLA. Holiday quickly blossomed as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers and made his first All-Star team in his fourth season. Despite the success, however, he was not considered a building block for the franchise, and he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans for two first-round picks as the infamous Sam Hinkie-led “Process” kicked off in earnest in Philadelphia.

During his time in New Orleans, Holiday was frequently at the top of the list of All-Star snubs and a common answer to the question, “who is the league’s most underrated player?” When the Pelicans traded him to the Milwaukee Bucks before last season, the price of two first-round picks and two pick swaps was considered excessively hefty for a player of Holiday’s stature.

All he’s done since then is continue to prove the doubters wrong, helping to lead the Bucks to their first title in 50 years in 2021 and getting them within one game of their second-straight Eastern Conference finals appearance after a thrilling 110-107 Game 5 comeback win over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday.

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Holiday has cemented himself as perhaps the best on-ball defensive guard in the league, particularly in a postseason setting, putting the clamps on every variation of All-Star from James Harden to Trae Young to Devin Booker to Zach LaVine. His defensive prowess was never more perfectly illustrated than in the closing seconds of Wednesday’s win, as he came up with a spectacular block on Celtics guard Marcus Smart, controlling the ball and throwing it off of Smart to give the Bucks possession. Then Holiday sealed the game with a steal just before the buzzer as Boston sought a potential game-tying 3-point attempt.

“Jrue, he’s a hell of a defender. Picks up guys full-court sometimes and he has his other times where he picks them up at the half-court. He’s a guy that can change the game with his defense,” Bucks big man Bobby Portis said after Game 5. “Coming from behind, Marcus Smart might have got it off and it could have went in, but I’m lucky and happy that Jrue was there to save the day.”

For much of Holiday’s tenure with the Bucks, defense has been the priority. With two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and All-Star Khris Middleton as the primary scorers, Holiday’s steady offense just added to Milwaukee’s plethora of riches. But since Middleton’s injury in Game 2 of their first-round series, Holiday has been forced into a larger offensive role — one where he’s required to be a bona fide No. 2 option in order for the Bucks to survive.

On the surface, Holiday’s offensive playoff numbers appear somewhat pedestrian in the eight games since Middleton’s injury, particularly in the efficiency department — 20.1 points per game on 37 percent field goals and 35 percent 3-pointers. In the series against the Celtics, Holiday’s field goal percentage has dropped to 34.5 percent. Those numbers seem paltry compared to the regular season, when Holiday averaged 18.3 points per game on sterling 50/41/76 shooting splits. 

But you have to keep in mind what the Bucks are asking of Holiday during the postseason. With Middleton out, Holiday’s usage rate has jumped from 23.1 percent to 26.8 percent. After taking 14 shots per game during the regular season, Holiday is averaging over 23 attempts per game in the Celtics series. So with the increase in attempts, along with the fact that he’s playing against the league’s top defense and being guarded by the likes of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, it’s understandable that he’d have a drop-off in efficiency.

For Holiday and the Bucks, however, volume is the key. Holiday needs to stay aggressive offensively even if his shots aren’t going in, because it helps give Antetokounmpo much-needed rest and opens things up for the role players.

“His ability to make timely shots, get to the basket and finish, get to the mid range and finish,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said earlier in the Celtics series. “It’s just, that’s what we need from him.”

In addition to his mid-range pull-ups and step-back 3s, Holiday has been relentless attacking the rim. He’s not afraid to put his body into the Celtics’ bigger defenders, whether it’s on a post-up or a drive. In the conference semifinals, Holiday is averaging 15.4 drives per game, compared to 13 per game in the regular season. Watch here as Holiday gets isolated on Tatum and quickly attacks him, using his strength to body the larger defender out of the way to get the easy layup.

In Game 2, he showed no fear attacking Al Horford around the basket despite a significant size difference.

“I love Jrue. He always gives everything for the team. His effort is always there. His attitude is great. He’s a great guy to have next to you,” Antetokounmpo said after Game 5. “We’re very similar. We’re not about the extra stuff. We are about winning.”

And when it comes to winning time, Holiday has been spectacular. In fact it’s been Holiday, not Antetokounmpo, leading the team in clutch scoring in the postseason. In five games this postseason defined as “clutch” (within five points with five minutes remaining), Holiday has averaged 2.2 points compared to Antetokounmpo’s one point. This is where the eye test comes into play. Holiday’s percentages may not be great, but if you’ve watched these playoffs — particularly the Boston series — you’ve seen Holiday make multiple huge plays at the most crucial times.

On Wednesday, with the Bucks battling back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit, Holiday went into isolation and hit a tough, contested shot over Smart, the newly minted Defensive Player of the Year, to cut the lead to two with just over four minutes left.

He followed that up with a game-tying, no-hesitation 3-pointer in the final minute to put the Bucks in position to ultimately win the game.

Holiday has performed consistently in the clutch throughout the series. In Game 4, he somehow found Brook Lopez for a nearly impossible alley-oop to bring the Bucks within two.

It was also telling in Game 3, when Antetokounmpo, one of the faces of the NBA and the reigning NBA Finals MVP, willingly ceded the ball to Holiday to get a bucket with the Bucks up by one with less than 30 seconds left. Holiday once again picked on a bigger defender, using his strong off arm to bump Tatum to the ground, then tossed in a difficult floater with immaculate touch to put his team up by three.

It’s easy to look at Holiday and focus on his elite defensive prowess, but the Bucks wouldn’t be in position to advance to the conference finals without his consistent offensive aggressiveness and clutch playmaking. With Middleton out of the mix, Holiday has given Budenholzer and the Bucks exactly what they’ve needed to survive.

“I think a lot of it is just confidence in ourselves. Obviously we’re in Boston, we’re down 14 in the fourth quarter. People would say that everything’s against us, but we come together,” Holiday said after the Game 5 win. “I feel like we’ve done that multiple times, and we’ll live and die by that — having each other’s backs, just wrapping arms and going out there and fighting. Honestly, just leaving it on the line, leaving it on the court every single game.”

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