MILWAUKEE — With 0.5 seconds remaining in overtime on Saturday afternoon, the jubilation inside Fiserv Forum after Khris Middleton’s go-ahead jumper had turned to anxiety. The Heat had the ball and still had a chance, albeit a small one, to tie or win the game. No one wanted to celebrate too early, especially given the history of postseason failure for the Bucks and the city of Milwaukee in general.
Thanks to Jrue Holiday, they didn’t have to wait long to breathe a sigh of relief. Showing exactly why he’s regarded as one of the best defenders in the league, Holiday shadowed Jimmy Butler across the court, kept his hands high and blocked his desperation attempt at the buzzer to seal the Bucks’ 109-107 Game 1 victory.
“Really just [wanted to] stay in front,” Holiday said. “We don’t want any threes — I mean, we don’t want twos either — but I didn’t want to get beat back door to the rim for a tip. And then if I saw the ball, there’s 0.5 seconds left so there’s no way he could pump fake. So I went up with him and tried to block it.”
Moments like that, and games like this were exactly why the Bucks were willing to give up Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, three first-round picks and two pick-swaps to acquire Holiday from the Pelicans in a blockbuster trade this offseason. They knew they needed more talent, yes, but they also needed to be more prepared for the playoffs, when the game slows down, buckets are harder to come by and defensive versatility is at a premium.
Holiday checks all of those boxes, and he delivered in a major way in Game 1. In addition to the game-saving block, he finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and three steals in 42 minutes. And while his defense was important, as we saw on the final possession and throughout the game, his ability to create offensively was a difference-maker in this game.
Giannis Antetokounmpo went 10-of-27 from the field, the Bucks shot 5-of-31 from 3-point land and they turned it over 17 times. With all due respect to Bledsoe, who’s a solid player and gives you a lot on the defensive end, that’s a game the Bucks lose with him as the starting point guard. Instead, they pushed through and got the win thanks in large part to the scoring boost Holiday provided.
“He gives us a punch,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He gives us somebody who can get to the paint, finish, make tough shots, make good decisions, and use his defense to create offense. Each guy kind of took turns and had stretches, and that’s what we need.”
It was Holiday’s turn in the third quarter. He scored 11 of the Bucks’ 27 points in the frame and made some big baskets to keep the Bucks afloat while Giannis was on the bench. All of his skill sets were on display, as he made an easy layup in transition after forcing a turnover, got into the paint for a few buckets out of the pick-and-roll and knocked down a step-back jumper in isolation.
In 31 playoff games with the Bucks, Bledsoe only reached the 20-point mark four times. Holiday did it in his first game. That scoring threat from the backcourt adds a dynamic the Bucks simply didn’t have the past few seasons when their only offensive strategies were “hey Giannis go do something,” Middleton isolations and spamming catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. Against a certain level of competition, that wasn’t enough.
Holiday gives them another look, and that’s why he’s perhaps the key reason analysts are more bullish on the Bucks’ chances of playoff success this season. That’s a major honor for Holiday, but also comes a lot of pressure — something he’s more than ready to handle.
“This is why we play man,” Holiday said. “This is why we play the game. For moments like this, games like this, this opportunity. This is why I’m here. I wanted to feel this moment and the pressure and all that. It’s been fun first game, but we still got some more work to do.”