The Milwaukee Bucks were in an unusual position during the last off-season.
They were title contenders facing wholesale upheaval, with Giannis Antetokounmpo’s so-called supermax contract extension unsigned after they had again slunk out of the playoffs disappointingly early, despite having the best regular-season record for a second consecutive season.
To reassure skittish Bucks fans (and Antetokounmpo), Jon Horst, Milwaukee’s general manager, said that the franchise was focused on taking “big swings” to build the roster around Antetokounmpo. If the Bucks didn’t, they risked losing a generational player to free agency after this season.
The ultimate swing came with the acquisition of guard Jrue Holiday, who scored 27 points and added 9 rebounds and 9 assists on Saturday in Game 6 of the league’s Eastern Conference finals, for a win that sent Milwaukee to its first appearance in the league finals since 1974. It was an apt follow-up to Holiday’s Game 5 performance, in which he scored 25 points and dished out 13 assists. In both games, Antetokounmpo was out with a knee injury and the Bucks needed Holiday to help fill the resulting abyss. Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer, in something of an understatement, said that Holiday “rose to the occasion.”
“It’s cool to think that as a little kid, this is what you watch the playoffs for,” Holiday said. “This is all the moments that I felt as a little kid watching television. I lived them and went through them, and now I get to go to the finals and see what this is about.”
When the Bucks acquired Holiday, it was hardly clear that they had solved their problems and improved their chances of enticing Antetokounmpo to stay. Although Holiday was a highly regarded guard, particularly on the defensive end, he had made only one All-Star team — in 2013 — over 11 N.B.A. seasons, raising questions about whether he would be a enough of an upgrade to get the Bucks to the next level.
On top of that, the Bucks gave up a bounty to get him from the New Orleans Pelicans in a deal that involved four teams: They traded Eric Bledsoe (their starting point guard), George Hill (a strong veteran shooting guard), two first-round draft picks and the right to swap two future picks, while giving up rights to the promising R.J. Hampton, whom the Bucks had taken at No. 24 in the 2020 draft. All for a player who was 30 at the time and not considered a star in the traditional sense.
If the plan backfired, and the Bucks were again knocked out of the playoffs before the finals, the Bucks risked not only losing Antetokounmpo, but also being at a significant disadvantage in rebuilding without their full complement of draft picks. To make matters more tenuous, Holiday could have opted out of his contract after this season, raising the possibility that the Bucks would have traded years worth of draft picks for nothing.
Instead, the trade has — so far — worked out almost as well as Horst and the Bucks fan base could have envisioned. From a macro perspective, the deal probably smoothed the path for Antetokounmpo to sign the extension a few weeks later, keeping the two-time Most Valuable Player Award winner committed to Milwaukee at least for now. (It’s possible he would have signed regardless.)
Holiday fit in exactly as hoped in Milwaukee. Though his regular-season numbers weren’t terribly flashy — 17.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists — he did make the league’s all-defensive first team. In April, Holiday agreed to an extension of his own, months after Antetokounmpo, that will keep him under contract in Milwaukee until at least 2024.
“Pressure is often external, so internally within the team, we just wanted to play with him,” Pat Connaughton, the Bucks reserve guard, told reporters after Game 6. “We loved having him on board. We loved the type of guy he is as a person, as a player. He always makes the right play.”
Holiday did not become a regular-season All-Star, but he was brought in for a bigger purpose.
“I’m here to win,” Holiday said. “None of that stuff really matters to me. I think being put in this position to win and to have a chance to make it to the finals and take advantage of that is what I’m here for. I think accolades from my teammates and the players around the league, they know what’s up. They are in the trenches with me. They know what it takes to fight and to claw, and if I get the respect from them, that’s all that really matters to me.”
Holiday was acquired to help lift the Bucks to new heights, and with his strong series against the Atlanta Hawks in the conference finals, he did just that. In the six games, Holiday averaged 22 points and 10 assists and shot 46.3 percent from the field, all above his career regular-season averages.
Holiday’s significance to the Bucks lay in his versatility. He could space the floor as a shooter (he hit 39.2 percent from 3-point range during the regular season), giving Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton more room to operate. He could penetrate and create for others on a nightly basis, giving Budenholzer more playmaking options.
Holiday is also one of the best defensive guards in the N.B.A. and saw time on many opposing teams’ best players in the postseason, like Kevin Durant and Trae Young — allowing Antetokounmpo and Middleton to conserve more energy for the offensive end. When the trio shared the floor during the regular season with Brook Lopez and Donte DiVincenzo, the Bucks had an 8.7 net rating — essentially a measure of how much better the team is while the players were on the floor. This was among the best in the league. (Lopez and DiVincenzo were the other starters during the regular season. DiVincenzo was ruled out for the playoffs in the midst of the first round because of a left foot injury.)
But perhaps Holiday’s greatest asset was his ability not to shrink as pressure increased — a welcome addition for Milwaukee, given its recent postseason history. Just as the Bucks’ playoff hopes suddenly seemed tenuous — after Antetokounmpo sustained the knee injury in Game 4 and then Atlanta won to tie the series at two games apiece, Holiday responded with poise. In the fourth quarter on Saturday night, as the Hawks began to make a valiant comeback, Middleton went cold.
“I told Jrue I was struggling — ‘I just want to win. You’ve got to get the ball and make something happen because right now I just don’t have it,’” Middleton said, recounting a conversation with Holiday. (Not that Middleton had a shabby game: He finished with 32 points.)
Holiday scored 6 points in the final quarter, two on a creative layup with 5 minutes 25 seconds left that put the Bucks up by 13, and offered an alley-oop assist to Lopez with 1:29 left to seal the win.
Not that this postseason run was spotless for Holiday. Against the Nets in the conference semifinals, Holiday struggled on both ends of the floor. He shot only 36.1 percent from the field in the series and was routinely torched by Durant. But he also hit several key baskets near the end of Game 7 to rescue the Bucks from another premature playoff exit.
Now the Bucks will head to Phoenix to take on the Suns in Game 1 of the finals, where Holiday will face his biggest test yet. The guards he will be expected to slow down are Chris Paul and Devin Booker, two offensive wizards. At the same time, with Antetokounmpo’s availability for the series uncertain, Holiday will probably need to carry the offense along with Middleton, just as he did in Games 5 and 6 against Atlanta.
That’s a lot for even a perennial All-Star to take on, much less a one-time selection. But if the Atlanta series was any indication, Holiday does not seem daunted about carrying extra weight. That’s why the Bucks traded for him, and by getting them to the championship round, Holiday has already paid off.