Milwaukee Bucks need more from third star Jrue Holiday and new strategy for Kevin Durant

Before forcing Kyrie Irving to give up the ball to Bruce Brown in Game 3 – who then missed as open a floater from five feet as you’re going to see – you might have thought Jrue Holiday’s performances for two straight games against the Brooklyn Nets had been quite poor.

Giannis Antetokounmpo snared the rebound and Holiday found himself in the outlet position alone as Irving got caught up in the paint. A half-break up the court found Holiday shrugging off Joe Harris to step into the lane, where Brown cut off the basket, but the Milwaukee Bucks guard span to his right, avoiding Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin for a layup to put his team up by one with 11 seconds to go in the game.

It gave Holiday just nine points. But it was the play that won the game for Milwaukee and staved off a 3-0 deficit.

It showed that the former All-Star can create winning plays. It meant that the Bucks didn’t have to rely on Antetokounmpo nor Khris Middleton down the stretch, which is something the franchise had in mind when it brought in Holiday during the off-season.

Building Back Better

After two years of being knocked out of the playoffs, two things were clear: consecutive, two-time, reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton needed a third threat to match the super-teams that were forming around them, and head coach Mike Budenholzer needed to start playing his stars more minutes.


The latter is being done, maybe not to the extent the team needs, but last season the Bucks top three in playing time averaged 33 minutes, and this year they are averaging 37.

During 2020-21, it seemed like Jrue Holiday was that third star. The regular season saw Antetokounmpo and Middleton average 48 points, 17 rebounds and 11 assists between them – not dissimilar to last season – but they upgraded Eric Bledsoe, who averaged 14 points, four rebounds and five assists in 2019-20, to Holiday, who managed 17, four and six.

While the Bucks didn’t secure the top seed as they did in previous seasons, Holiday’s individual improvement helped the team improve its offensive output. On the defensive end, they allowed more points but many recognised that Budenholzer was implementing new systems: switching instead of fighting through screens and playing drop coverage or trying new zones. They were more complex, and the ability to mix things up their coverage would prepare them for different opponents in the playoffs.

It went well in the first round. Holiday struggled shooting the ball from distance but averaged more than nine assists, showing that the team could be successful putting the ball in someone’s hands other than Antetokounmpo. Some late game heroics from Middleton also helped, but they swept the Miami Heat out in a relatively simple manner.

Against a much stronger offensive team in the Brooklyn Nets – even with their injuries – Holiday’s struggles have worsened. But Budenholzer is still backing his point guard, as he explained to Sky Sports: “We’ve got to take our opportunities, whether it’s Jrue or anybody else: just take what the defense gives you, take what the game gives you. Jrue is more than capable, and we have a lot of confidence in him.”

The Same, But More

The confidence is warranted, especially after Jrue Holiday’s Game 5 performance. It was overshadowed slightly, because… well, you know, Kevin Durant, but Holiday had himself a game. He rediscovered his shooting stroke, hitting three of seven from three-point territory, including a step-back from distance – which he hit 45 per cent of during the regular season, and a few trusty pull-ups when the Nets dropped slightly and dared him to shoot.

You can see why the Nets were giving Holiday that shot. He had previously hit just 30 per cent of all threes in the series, and he had done more damage as a playmaker – the Bucks had won every game in which he recorded nine or more assists in the playoffs – so cutting off driving and passing lanes was sensible.

And the Bucks would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for Durant, who firmly planted his flag on the ‘best scorer ever’ mountain – where Carmelo Anthony’s tattered banner was thrown onto a pile of insignia for Tracy McGrady, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James.

Durant drove down the lane, crossed over into pull-up threes, curled around screens, cut baseline, posted up, attacked in pick and rolls, and more. He showed the complete package to keep his team within arm’s reach of the Bucks and hit a huge three to put them ahead, then another to put them back ahead and a third down the stretch to secure the win.

Outside of tackling his ankles on every shot, there was not much the Milwaukee Bucks could have done to stop him. Head coach Mike Budenholzer will likely make some adjustments in Game 6 – new strategies on when and where to double – but much of it will just be hoping that Durant doesn’t hit nearly 70 per cent of his shots.

Holiday didn’t match up with Durant when the forward was shooting, outside of part possessions. Instead, Durant was guarded by PJ Tucker and Kyrie Middleton.

Holiday spent much of the game on James Harden as the shooting guard returned from a hamstring injury. The gameplan was clearly to pressure Harden whenever he touched the ball and deny when he was off it. Holiday did a good job of being aggressive in this way. Nobody expected Harden to light up the court on his first game back, but Holiday held him to just five points. The longer the series goes on, Harden gets healthier, and the harder it will get to keep the former MVP at bay.

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Budenholzer said: “When Jrue is aggressive, we’re always at our best. He’s got a lot of confidence and he’s going to find his way. He’s a smart player, he’s a good player. Hopefully there’s things we can do to help him a little bit but it’s on everybody.”

The Bucks guard scored 19 points and registered eight assists in Game 5, managing a confident game on offense and defense throughout his 34 minutes. But it won’t be remembered, unlike the nine-point game when he managed one crucial play to help win the game. This is partly because of what happened with Durant on the other end of the court, but ultimately because it ended in a loss.

That doesn’t mean he needs to change much. This was the Holiday they booked when he joined the team at the start of this season, and if he can repeat the performance, he will reduce the chances of the Bucks heading to Cancun before the weekend. They just have to find a way to stop Durant packing their bags.

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