For so much of this frantic, back-and-forth NBA Finals series, Jrue Holiday’s shot simply has not been falling. That changed in remarkable fashion during Game 5 on Saturday night, when the former All-Star point guard shook off both the doubters and the doubts to inspire the most dramatic of victories.
Before the 2020-21 season even got underway, the Milwaukee Bucks bet the house on Jrue Holiday. He was, the franchise believed, the missing piece of the championship puzzle alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. So much so they mortgaged their future for a 30-year-old point guard and handed him a four-year, $160m contract extension the day after he touched down in Wisconsin.
His arrival in November meant two things: Giannis was sticking around – on the largest contract in NBA history no less (five years, $228m) – and the Bucks title window was officially wide open. Anything less than a ‘chip over the next few years with this ‘Big Three’ would be seen as something of a colossal failure or worse, a waste of Giannis’ prime, whatever was going on in New York or Los Angeles.
Antetokounmpo was a reigning two-time MVP and Defensive Player of the Year heading into this season. Middleton a two-time All-Star. In effect, it’s now, soon, or never.
Milwaukee know better than anyone a player like Giannis comes along only once in a generation, or even longer than that. This is a ball club without a championship for 50 years, when the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, selected first by the Bucks in the 1969 draft, led the team to its only ever title in 1971.
Once he was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers just four years later, that was that. The Bucks had not reached the NBA Finals or sniffed a championship since, until now.
Given this weight attached to Holiday entering an unlikely closing series against the Phoenix Suns, it was perhaps no surprise to see him struggle through Games 1, 2 and 4 so far. During those three matches he shot just 29 per cent, 33 per cent and then 20 per cent on field goals, quickly resembling the tortured Eric Bledsoe: the bricky point guard he was meant to replace.
Those are the kind of numbers you expect from Giannis’ three-point attempts, not a guy who shot over 50 per cent during the regular season. From deep it was even worse, as he went 1-12 in total – a ghastly 8 per cent from beyond the arc.
Game 3 will forever be etched in history as ‘the Giannis game’ given his historic dominance in the paint, but Holiday came alive in that one too, scoring 21 points and nailing half of his 10 triples. That level of play did not last, and it was left up to Giannis and Middleton to come up with clutch play after clutch play in Game 4’s thrilling final quarter to tie the series.
But make no mistake about it, even though his two star team-mates produced the goods yet again, this was Jrue Holiday’s night and his victory, right when his team needed it most. We were all waiting for a decisive factor to break these Finals open. Finally, we got one.
It did not seem like either the Bucks or the Suns would be able to beat the other on the road given their dominant home court records. Then right on cue, Milwaukee flew into Phoenix and lit it up, overcoming a 16-point (sixteen!) point deficit in the first quarter to pour in 43 in the second and lead the rest of the way, even if things got exceptionally dicey in the final period.
Through it all was Holiday, who played the kind of heady, clinical basketball on both ends we’ve come to expect from him, at least during the regular season. To do it in a critical Game 5 of the NBA Finals after struggling so badly in previous games and with the decibels of the Phoenix Suns Arena reaching airport runway heights, was remarkable.
He led all scorers at the half with 18 points after swishing almost everything in the opening quarters, going 8-11 from the field and a perfect 2-2 from three. It seemed all he needed all along was to watch that very first shot of the game drop soundlessly through the hoop, the ball leaving the net undisturbed by its presence.
Once rolling he did not stop and ended with 27 points, 13 assists, four rebounds, three steals and one block, as well as a game high +14 in plus/minus.
Middleton (29/7/5) and Antetokoumpo (32/9/6) followed suit with stellar performances of their own as the trio combined for 88 points in the Bucks’ 123-119 victory.
The ‘Big Three’ proved themselves just that, becoming just the fifth trio in NBA Finals history to each score 25 points on 50 per cent shooting in a single game and are the first to do so since James Worthy (33 points), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (36 points) and Magic Johnson (26 points) in 1985.
Trios with 25+ PTS on 50 per cent Shooting (NBA Finals history)
However, it was Holiday who ultimately proved the difference-maker for the Bucks on the night to put them within touching distance of the title. As clutch plays go, his steal and alley-oop pass to Giannis to put the Bucks up three with 13 seconds left was as decisive as they come.
He literally snatched a go-ahead bucket attempt from the ice cold killer that is Devin Booker (another 40-point game in a losing effort for the Suns) and turned it into an emphatic, soul-sucking slam at the other end to seal the game. It will be right up there with Giannis’ block from another world in Game 4 as the moments played over and over again by fans in the near future, fondly reminiscing about whatever comes of this series.
It might well prove the biggest steal, and biggest assist, in Milwaukee Bucks history.
That being said, perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Holiday’s performance, or at the very least the most fitting, was the fact that he played 37 minutes of the game in foul trouble after collecting two calls in the first five minutes.
Even so, he hounded Paul almost into submission for the second game running and had one astounding play where, as Booker tried to body past him at half-court with shoulder-into-chest shoves, Holiday didn’t budge. Booker tried again, and again, and this time had the ball stripped in a flash and a three-pointer drained over his head at the other end.
Given what was to come in the final 16 seconds, there was more than a hint of foreshadowing.
Defense leads to offense for Holiday, tough play 😤 pic.twitter.com/Ze0gk2yeyS
It was not just those two, either. He’s as strong as an ox who’s spent lockdown in the weight room, meaning he can pick up bigger players on switches in the post and guard up multiple positions, despite being one of the shortest guys on the court at 6’3″. The on-ball defense par excellence is what we’ve come to expect from the two-time All-Defensive First Teamer, and it’s been a consistent theme throughout the series even as Holiday’s shooting stroke deserted him.
To see it finally come up trumps in a potentially-defining Game 5 win on the road was fitting.
That climactic steal on Booker, with the clock ticking down, one point separating the teams and the pendulum swinging back in favour of Phoenix was pure instinct, swarming upon the helpless Suns’ star the split-second he saw any hesitation. But afterwards Holiday credited his team-mates for his leading man moment.
“Honestly, it was great team defense. We felt like we knew Booker wanted to take that last shot, Tuck [PJ Tucker] played great defense on him and made him turn his back,” he said after the game.
“He turned right into me. So I guess I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Right place in the right time does not tell you the half of it. That audacious lob pass to Giannis steam rolling towards the rim, when most players would have held the ball and waited for the inevitable foul and free throws to come?
That takes guts, sure, but one thing most of all.
“I think the pass was all about trust,” Giannis said. He was right, and how poetic it was for Holiday, the guy they have been trusting all along through this rough patch, to repay it all back in one glorious moment.
In the locker room after the game the first thing Holiday – or ‘Jrueski’ to his team-mates – did was scribble that same digit on the whiteboard.
“It might as well be us, huh. One more baby. One more boys.”
After the game of his life, the Milwaukee Bucks are 48 minutes away from their bet on Jrue Holiday paying out the ultimate reward.
Inside the locker room after the Bucks WIN Game 5 of the #NBAFinals!! pic.twitter.com/WFRrW8XqRq
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