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Jrue Holiday Proving to be Milwaukee’s Missing Piece

Milwaukee’s aggressive pursuit of Jrue Holiday before the season is finally paying off when they need it the most. Chad Smith looks back at the trade and explains why it will still be the right move, even if the Bucks don’t win the championship this year.

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The NBA Finals roll along as the Milwaukee Bucks will try to even up the series in less than 48 hours. After the Phoenix Suns took the first two games in their arena, the Bucks responded on their home floor with a lopsided victory in Game 3. It was another supreme performance by Giannis Antetokounmpo. This time he had help, and plenty of it. This is the team we all envisioned seeing at the start of the season.

Milwaukee pushed all of their chips into the middle of the table before the season started when they made the blockbuster trade to acquire Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans. Jon Horst understood the need for a dynamic point guard and one that could play both sides of the ball. Eric Bledsoe was a part of that deal, and his shortcomings in the postseason were thought to have been eradicated with Holiday’s arrival.

When Antetokounmpo was out of the lineup, Holiday played aggressively and was quite effective. It was a major boost to Milwaukee’s offense, but it has not been consistent. Holiday admitted after Game 1 in Phoenix that he didn’t put enough pressure on Chris Paul. The Bucks were switching every ball screen, oftentimes without any resistance.

Holiday finished that game with just 10 points on 4-14 shooting with 0 blocks, 0 steals and 3 turnovers. He bounced back in Game 2 with 17 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks but it was not enough to get the win. Sunday night he had his best game with 21 points, 5 rebounds, 9 assists and knocked down five three-pointers. He was attacking the basket and finding his teammates for easy buckets.

Often labeled as the third star in Milwaukee, Holiday has never really had to deal with the pressure and expectations that Antetokounmpo has felt. Khris Middleton has gotten a taste of that this year and has struggled with consistency just like Holiday. All three were clicking on Sunday night, and the Suns simply had no answer.

The addition of the 31-year old point guard came with one big question. Would he stay in Milwaukee, or depart in free agency during the summer? That question was answered on April 4 when he signed a four-year contract extension. That solidified his place with this core after Antetokounmpo signed his $228 million super-max extension just before Christmas of last year.

With Holiday committing to his future, Antetokounmpo under contract through the 2025-26 season and Middleton locked in through the 2023-24 season, Milwaukee has cemented their place as a contender in the Eastern Conference for the foreseeable future.

Should they not take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the next question will be how can Horst improve this team for next year? They won’t have the money needed to lure any big-time free agents so the Bucks must rely on player development and improving the roster around the edges. With teams like the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers vastly improving just by getting healthy, Milwaukee will need to do more than just tweak their bench.

The elephant in the room is the status of Mike Budenholzer. After three seasons in Milwaukee, has he done enough to return to lead this team or do they need a new voice and philosophy? The lack of in-game adjustments has always been the knock on Budenholzer but that has been mostly blown out of proportion. With a different strategy and game plan, would the outcome really be any different?

People often mistake monotone behavior as someone that is not fully invested. While the delivery of his words may rub people the wrong way, Budenholzer needs to be given credit for Milwaukee’s success. One adjustment that worked well for them in Game 3 was limiting the Suns backcourt. They essentially decided that if they were going to lose, Jae Crowder and Deandre Ayton were going to have to beat them.

Being a motivator is a tool that many coaches possess, and use effectively. However, it is not their job to get the players motivated. It is the biggest stage in basketball. Legacies and reputations are on the line. What the Bucks desperately lack is a clear leader on the floor. Holiday has never been that guy. Middleton doesn’t fit that mold either. They won’t get that from Brook Lopez. Even Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP, just hasn’t shown he is comfortable in that role.

It has been another odd season, as teams and players dealt with injuries, COVID-19 protocols, a shortened season, fans returning to the arenas and a new playoff format. One thing we have witnessed is that leads can vanish in an instant, no matter the circumstance. It happened again during the third quarter on Sunday.

Antetokounmpo shined with his second consecutive 40-point performance, but the key to Game 3 was the timely baskets made by Holiday. As the Suns closed to within four points in the third quarter, the All-Star guard knocked down shot after shot and made defensive plays to stop the Suns’ rally.

One noticeable adjustment in Game 3 was Holiday’s defensive assignment, shifting to Devin Booker. The move paid off, as Booker had the worst game of the postseason, scoring just 10 points on 3-14 shooting. The video above shows his ability to stick to his man and still be a force under the basket, then running the floor after making the block. The Bucks thrived in transition, outscoring the Suns 16-6 in fast break points.

Although they had the top-ranked offense during the regular season, defense has always been the one thing that the Bucks could hang their hat on. They are oozing with elite defensive talent at every position, allowing them to switch most screens and be just fine.

Both Antetokounmpo and Holiday were named to the All-Defensive First Team and Lopez has developed into a great rim protector. Only Rudy Gobert blocked more shots on average during the playoffs and everyone knows what PJ Tucker brings to the table. Add Middleton to this group and it is a nightmare for offenses around the league. That is not going to change anytime soon.

Skeptics will point out that the Bucks aided from some key injuries to opposing stars like Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Trae Young, but every team that wins the title catches a break or two along the way. They dealt with Antetokounmpo’s injury and are without Donte DiVincenzo for the entire postseason. It is obvious who has been shouldering the load for the Bucks, but their depth has been crucial to their run to the Finals.

Milwaukee responded on Sunday in what was essentially a must-win game. They understood what it would mean if they went down 0-3 in the series. The key now will be how the Suns adjust in Game 4 and if the Bucks can do it again. Home court advantage should help, as they are 8-1 at home this postseason. Antetokounmpo will aim to continue his historic Finals run, but the key will be the consistency of Holiday and Middleton. At some point, they are going to have to get a win in Phoenix.

As a team, the Bucks average more points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks at home in the playoffs compared to on the road. They also shoot a better percentage overall from the floor and the free-throw line. Antetokounmpo himself was 13-17 from the charity stripe in Game 3, where he struggled mightily during the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bucks gave up Bledsoe and George Hill, first-round draft choice RJ Hampton and two future first-round draft picks as part of the four-team trade for Holiday. They also gave New Orleans the right to swap two future first-round picks as part of the deal. They were willing to part with all of that because they believe that he was the missing piece.

If Holiday continues to play at this level it just might deliver the Bucks their second title, 40 years after winning their first. Even if they come up short, he will still be worth every penny.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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