Sorry, Lucky Jrue doesn’t roll off the tongue, and besides, he was more than that. So much more. The defining moment of the Bucks’ 123-119 victory over the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 on Saturday illustrates why Milwaukee took such a mind-blowing risk in trading for Holiday in November. General Manager Jon Horst didn’t consider Holiday the right player for the right price. He wanted him no matter the cost, and the Bucks gave up so many assets that it was impossible to evaluate the deal without wincing at the price tag.
Holiday embodied sticker shock: He cost them starting point guard Eric Bledsoe, key veteran backup George Hill, super-athletic rookie R.J. Hampton, two future first-round draft picks and the right to swap two more first-rounders. The Bucks gave up all that for a 30-year-old combo guard who has a streaky jumper and one All-Star Game appearance in his career. And he was due for a new contract, which Milwaukee gave him in April and added to the sticker shock: a four-year, $135 million deal with incentives that could balloon the price to $160 million.
Holiday fits the Bucks well, and he is widely viewed as the best defensive guard in the game. But the monster trade and contract made his worth a constant source of debate. It didn’t matter that his arrival contributed to Antetokounmpo feeling secure enough to end speculation about his departure and sign a new long-term, supermax deal. It didn’t matter that, with Holiday, the Bucks looked to be better equipped for the playoffs. It was inevitable that his worth would be questioned until he proved to be the missing piece to a championship puzzle.
On Tuesday, the Bucks will play for that title. After losing the first two games of this series, they have won three straight, and Holiday has been a difference maker. It had been about his defense, particularly on Chris Paul, but during Game 5 on Saturday night, he was special in every facet of the game.
He finished with 27 points, 13 assists and three steals. He found his offense and punished Paul and Devin Booker, wearing on them with his physical style. He made hustle plays. He ran the show like a true point guard. His on-ball defense was terrific, but his awareness off the ball was just as impactful. He was toughest during the game’s most difficult moments.
Holiday is not an all-NBA talent. Sometimes he functions as Milwaukee’s second-best player. Sometimes he slides behind Khris Middleton as the No. 3 guy. Sometimes he disappears offensively, so much so that he has been mocked as nothing more than a glorified Bledsoe. But his tenacity suits how the Bucks play. He competes at all times, even if you think he’s playing poorly. His relentlessness fuels this team.
“Yeah, it takes a lot out of his body to do what he does on a nightly basis,” Antetokounmpo said. “Pick the point guard up full court and then bring the ball up, put the whole team in order, in position, execute, try to score, try to get downhill, try to find the open man. Like, it’s a lot, you know. But we trust him that he can do that. But one thing, the great thing about Jrue is that he can affect the game in a lot of ways.”
At the end of Game 5, he was alert and provided help as Booker dribbled into scoring position. Middleton, the primary defender, slid his feet and stayed in front of Booker, and as the Suns guard prepared to go into a counter move, Holiday yanked the basketball from his hands with 16.7 seconds remaining.
“I turned, and he was right there,” said Booker, who scored 40 points, his second straight dominant offensive performance.
“A great play by Jrue,” Phoenix Coach Monty Williams said. “I don’t have any other words for that one.”
After the rip, Holiday pushed the ball and saw Antetokounmpo streaking down the court. Paul, who is a foot shorter than the 6-foot-11 Greek Freak, was the only player who could stop Giannis. He signaled for the lob. With the Bucks leading 120-119, the safe play would have been for Holiday to resist, slow his dribble and wait for the Suns to foul him. But it was a two-on-one fast break. Holiday lobbed a pass high into the air.
“I mean, they don’t call him the Freak for nothing,” Holiday said.
Antetokounmpo dunked as Paul fouled him. He didn’t complete the play, and down 122-119 with 13.5 seconds left, Phoenix had a chance to tie the game on the next possession. But the lob was deflating for Phoenix. And it put Milwaukee a step away from its first title since 1971.
Holiday’s worth? No one is asking about that right now.
“After the game, I was like, ‘Thank you for trusting me,’” Antetokounmpo said. “He could throw it and make a wrong pass, and that would be on him as the point guard. The coach would say, ‘You’re supposed to keep the ball.’ But he trusted me, and he knows I’m going to finish the play. That says a lot to me.”
Holiday has had plenty of struggles this postseason. But every time you start to worry about him, he shows up. During Game 7 against Brooklyn, he shook off a 2-of-16 start and made huge plays down the stretch. When Antetokounmpo couldn’t play in the final two games of the Eastern Conference finals, Holiday led the Bucks as they closed out the Atlanta Hawks, dropping 25 points, 13 assists and six rebounds in Game 5 and following with 27 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in Game 6. He missed 16 of 20 shots in Game 4 of the Finals, but it didn’t stop him from shutting down Paul on defense. It didn’t stop him from finding his shot in this game.
“I feel like, at the end of the day, whatever I can do to help my team is most important,” Holiday said. “I went 4 for 20 the game before, and we still won, and I know I can do other things to affect the game. I know when my shot is going and I’m trying to make plays for others, it is definitely an added bonus.”
After multiple years of disappointing championship chases, the Bucks are a single victory from hoisting a trophy. They keep coming at you. Holiday keeps coming at you. Never mind the cost; they wouldn’t be here without him.