BOSTON – Everything Jrue Holiday does on defense is done with a purpose.
“What’s the point of you trying to steal the ball if you’re just going to hit it out of bounds?” Holiday asked The Athletic in March.
When Holiday dropped that musing in the middle of an in-depth 30-minute conversation about his defense, the question was rhetorical.
At the time, Holiday was deep into an explanation about how he tries to play passing lanes and keep the ball inbounds in order to turn his aggressive defense into steals rather than sideline out-of-bounds plays for his opponents. Two months later, it helped explain exactly what was going through his head as he pulled off another mind-bending, clutch defensive play to help the Bucks seal a playoff game, an epic, come-from-behind 110-107 Game 5 win in Boston.
The play was so spectacular and so clutch that it overshadowed Giannis Antetokounmpo putting up 40 points, 11 rebounds and three steals in 40 minutes – his sixth career 40-point, 10-rebound playoff performance – and gave the Bucks a chance to close out their second-round series against the Celtics in Game 6 on Friday in Milwaukee.
“Just a great instinctive play by Jrue,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “(Marcus) Smart had an angle, drove the baseline, and Jrue just, I’m not sure exactly where he came from.”
The play happened so quickly, it is tough to even comprehend, but slow it down and Holiday’s defensive genius explodes off of the court in every second and every movement he makes.
Following a clutch putback from Bobby Portis (14 points, 15 rebounds) on a missed Antetokounmpo free throw with 11.4 seconds remaining, the Celtics took a timeout to advance the ball and inbound from the sideline by their basket. Celtics point guard Derrick White served as the trigger man with Antetokounmpo on the ball, trying to keep him from throwing an easy pass. Holiday was near the right elbow guarding Jaylen Brown, while Marcus Smart was roughly 10 feet away near the bottom right corner of the floor, covered by Pat Connaughton.
After the game, Ime Udoka revealed the play was meant to get the ball into Smart’s hands on the top of the floor, so he could pass the ball to Jayson Tatum running off a pin-down screen from Al Horford on the other side of the floor, but that all changed with the way Connaughton guarded Smart, bodied him up as he tried to get to the top of the floor and opened up space for him on the baseline.
“Jaylen came down to set the screen, and Pat was fighting him, but he was on the top side,” Holiday explained exclusively to The Athletic. “Once he was on the top side, I felt like Marcus felt like he had a way into the basket, the baseline, so I just went. I know he did not see Jaylen behind him just because of the angle he had. ”
Though the block itself was incredible, everything that happened after Holiday touched the ball is somehow even more impressive.
“I did not want to hit it and make it go out of bounds; I wanted to keep it inbounds, ”Holiday said. “I think it was just kind of instinctual. It’s not like I planned it out or anything. ”
Holiday blocked the ball with his left hand, but rather than send it out of bounds like many players might do with their adrenaline spiking on a block at that moment from that angle, he blocked the shot and then cupped it with his left hand to make it go downward rather than forward. As he returned to the ground from his block, Holiday’s two-footed jump to block the shot turned into a one-footed landing on his left leg as he grabbed the ball with two hands with little space to spare on the baseline.
The gracefulness of the landing, the strength of his core, the power of his feet and the fluidity of it all happening at the same time are hard to fathom, but none of it is accidental. Holiday trains his body, including the muscles in his feet, to be successful in these exact moments.
When told that former teammate Andre Iguodala believes he has the strongest core in the NBA, Holiday explained that though he agrees with Iguodala’s assessment, his strength extends even farther down his body.
“It starts at the feet,” Holiday explained to The Athletic in March. “Your feet have to be strong. So usually when I train or start off training, it’s usually barefoot. You have to be able to feel the ground. You have to be able to strengthen your feet, because you have muscles in your feet. Feet to ankles, your ankles also have to be strong. For your ankles to be strong, you need strong calves. We could keep going, but it’s a chain, right? It goes up.
“But I think training single leg helps. For one, it’s balance. But it’s also core and, like, who really likes doing stuff single leg? But there’s so many times in the basketball game, you’re doing single-leg things and do not really notice it. You can not just do two-leg stuff. Jumping up in the air or how you want to shoot or doing a layup or whatever, like, you have to have strength in that, on a single leg, in jumping and in landing. ”
Holiday showed off that exact skill and exactly why he trains in that way on the play. He landed on his left foot and then managed to bring his right foot down inbounds to create a squat position of sorts, which he spun out of along the baseline while managing to stay inbounds the whole way.
“I think we’ve been playing this game long enough to kind of feel that out,” Holiday said. “It’s kind of like with that corner 3, knowing where out of bounds is, knowing where the 3-point line is. So I just think, playing this game long enough, I think anybody in that position probably would have done their best to try to stay inbounds. ”
Then, after a few carefully placed steps along the baseline, Holiday jumped again and threw the ball off of Smart to retain possession for the Bucks.
“At first, I was trying to see if I could throw it to somebody down the court,” Holiday said. “And obviously throw it away from our basket, just because that’s, like, rule No. 1. But when I did not see anybody and I saw Marcus kind of come up, like come with his hands up, just try to throw it off his chest and kind of at an angle to where it would not come back and hit me. ”
Only four seconds elapsed in the time it took for Smart to catch the inbounds pass and then get pelted with a two-hand overhead pass from Holiday, but those four seconds changed everything for the Bucks.
Rather than going back to Milwaukee with their season on the line in a must-win game, the Bucks head home with a chance to close out the Celtics on Friday night and make the prophetic maxim of last season’s championship run, “Bucks in 6, ”A reality once again.
Rather than making an encouraging comeback in a loss they could chalk up as a moral victory, the Bucks came storming back into the Garden in Boston and found a way to win, despite being down 14 when they went into a huddle with just over 10 minutes remaining and reminded each other there was a lot of time left on the clock.
Rather than wondering what could have been if Khris Middleton were on the floor when the Bucks’ role players came up short for Antetokounmpo, the two-time MVP and reigning NBA Finals MVP now has another signature playoff performance on the road that turned into a team win behind big plays from players up and down the roster.
“You can not get too high for this,” Antetokounmpo said. “Obviously, it’s great to win the game and great to go back home and feel good about ourselves, but the job’s not done.”
Antetokounmpo is right. The Bucks still need to take care of business in Milwaukee. The Celtics took Game 4 from them after the Bucks built a solid fourth-quarter lead, and this series has gone back and forth. The Celtics are not willingly going to hand them a win on Friday in Milwaukee, but that does not mean the Bucks can appreciate exactly what they did in Boston in Game 5.
Trailing 93-79 with 10:08 remaining on the clock, the Bucks closed the game on a 31-14 run with every player on the floor contributing:
- Connaughton hit two 3s at the start of the run and sealed the game with two clutch free throws with 5.9 seconds remaining to give the Bucks a three-point lead.
- Matthews defended the Celtics’ wings as he always does, came up with a massive offensive rebound to set up a 3 for Antetokounmpo and made a triple of his own.
- Portis came up with the biggest offensive rebound of the night by collecting a missed free throw from Antetokounmpo, and his putback gave the Bucks’ one-point lead Holiday protected with the block.
- Antetokounmpo scored eight points in the final 10 minutes, including a 3-pointer that cut the Bucks’ six-point deficit in half with 1:40 remaining and drawing the foul and hitting the first free throw to give Portis a chance to give the Bucks ‘the lead on the putback.
- And Holiday hit a 3-pointer that tied the game at 105 with under a minute remaining before making the block that gave Connaughton the chance to give the Bucks a three-point lead with 5.9 seconds remaining.
“We’re in Boston, we’re down 14 in the fourth quarter, and people would say that everything’s against us,” Holiday said. “But we come together. I feel like we’ve done that multiple times, and we live and die by that. Having each other’s backs, just wrapping arms and going up there fighting – honestly, just leaving it on the line. “
With no timeouts left and a three-point deficit following Connaughton’s clutch free throws, Smart inbounded the ball to Horford, who pitched it right back to Smart. The Celtics’ guard mishandled the ball slightly, only to recover right before meeting Holiday, and then the Bucks point guard ended it. He swiped the ball from Smart, dribbled the rest of the time off the clock and flexed as he headed towards an embrace with his teammates storming the court from the sideline.
“He’s a winner. Jrue Holiday is a winner, ”Budenholzer said. “You ask any player in this league, any coach in this league, he’s a winner.”
Just ask the Celtics.
White: The Celtics were cruising to a series lead against the Bucks, then lost their way
King: Celtics do not have time to dwell on Game 5 collapse as they try to regroup against Bucks
Buckley: Celtics have no one else to blame in collapse, “We did it to ourselves”
(Top photo of Jrue Holiday: David Butler II / USA Today)