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Jrue Holiday embraces the pressure of being Bucks' missing piece

Milwaukee's main offseason addition will have a chance to prove his value in back-to-back matchups against Miami this week.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

The Bucks have high hopes for what Jrue Holiday can bring to the team come playoff time.

Moving from one NBA team to another always carries with it a certain amount of pressure. To perform, to fit in, to demonstrate in short order that whatever price that new club paid, that new player was worth it.

Going to a team that’s better than the one he left, a team with designs on nothing less than a Finals trip, dials up that pressure even more.

Bearing responsibility for the face of the franchise, in this case back-to-back Kia MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, re-committing to Milwaukee deep into the prime of his career — excited by all that guard Jrue Holiday brings to this championship-minded team — well, that’s a whole new level of pressure.

Holiday knows how much the Bucks and the city are counting on him, and he’s fine with that. He’s counting on himself, too.

“Honestly, I think in any position there’s some sort of pressure,” Holiday said earlier this month. “If you can’t handle pressure, you probably shouldn’t be in this locker room.

“There’s pressure everywhere. For me, being able to control that, handle that through my family life, handle that with my teammates who support me and I them, I feel that’s kind of how you get through those type of pressure times.”

There is one better way: Give the Bucks the upgrade from Eric Bledsoe at both ends of the floor and, in particular, at the end of the season. Regardless of Holiday’s stats or the package of players and picks Milwaukee sent out for him, his value largely will be measured by how different the 2021 playoffs end than they did for the Bucks in ’20 or ’19.

Jrue Holiday scored 23 points in Milwaukee’s opening night loss in Boston.

“The confidence that he plays with will spread amongst the team,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr, whose team faced and got obliterated by Milwaukee on Christmas. “When you get deep in the playoffs, what you really need is as many alpha two-way players as you can get.”

Three games into his Bucks tenure — and on the brink of consecutive games against East rival Miami (Dec. 29, 7:30 p.m. ET, TNT and Dec. 30, 7:30 ET, NBA TV ) — Holiday has shown glimpses of the player the Bucks and others coveted when he hit the trade market. He is averaging 15 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and shooting 58.8% (despite a chilly 1-for-9 start on 3-pointers). In his 12th NBA season, the veteran is held in such high regard that a third of the league’s general managers considered his move to Milwaukee the most significant of the offseason.

So do plenty of Holiday’s peers. The Warriors’ Draymond Green missed Friday’s game in Milwaukee with a sore foot, but from the side he saw again Holiday’s two-way skills.

“One thing that’s special about Jrue is, he can guard players that are smaller than him, he can guard players that are bigger than him,” Green said a day later. “Jrue has great length. He’s not weak at all — he can be physical. I think Jrue is one of the best on-ball defenders in the league.”

Jrue Holiday arrived in Milwaukee ready to put in work.

Various analytics point to Holiday as one of the most frequently used and effective defenders matched up on opponents’ primary scorers. Green isn’t shy about singing Holiday’s lockdown praises, though that’s only half of the new Bucks guard’s game.

“Milwaukee was already a really good defensive team in the league. Then you add Jrue to that fold,” Green said. “Now, in saying that, Eric Bledsoe is no slouch defensively either. But I think with Jrue, he can guard all positions almost. He was all over everybody [Friday].”

Holiday, 30, scored 25 points in Milwaukee’s loss in Boston on opening night. Then he flexed at the other end in dealing with Stephen Curry, helping to limit the Warriors’ star to 6-of-17 shooting, including 2-of-10 on 3-pointers. The Bucks led 100-76 through three quarters when Holiday and the other four starters sat for the night.

“He’s so talented, and he’s so skilled,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said afterward. “I think some of the passes he makes, the vision, the finishing, the left hand, it’s pretty special. We’re still learning Jrue and it’s probably the same for him with us, so we feel like he’s just going to get better and we’ll get better around him.”

Clearly there’s room for improvement — Milwaukee’s third game was a mess, a 20-point loss in New York Sunday in which Holiday scored eight points on 4-of-10 shooting in 28 minutes. But you don’t hear anyone yet complaining that the price it took to get him — Bledsoe, George Hill, the 24th overall pick in 2020, two future first-round picks and two future pick swaps to the Pelicans, in what became a four-team trade — was an overpay.

“In terms of giving up pieces for me, again that’s part of the pressure,” Holiday said. “But I’m a basketball player and I’ve had pressure my whole life.”

A native of Los Angeles whose brothers Justin and Aaron play for the Indiana Pacers, Holiday was at All-Star in ’13, the last of his four seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers. He earned All-Defensive honors in ’18 and ’19 with New Orleans.

Bledsoe shares some of Holiday’s strengths: respected defender (also a two-time All-Defensive selection), with great explosiveness and ball skills. But Bledsoe faded in Milwaukee’s playoff ousters by Boston (2018) and Toronto (2019), and again tailed off against Miami (11.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.0 apg, shooting 16-of-48 and 3-of-14) in 2020. His underperformances began to drain team confidence before key series even began.

Holiday has the Bucks, for now, brimming in that category. He and his wife, Lauren, already have looped Milwaukee into the cities where they generously donated a chunk of his 2020 salary.

“He’s a very unselfish player, a guy that plays extremely hard on both sides of the ball that can score from all three levels,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton said. “And he’s a guy that loves to create. I think it shouldn’t be too hard to play with a guy like that.”

What goes around might come around: Now Holiday is in position to negotiate a contract extension with the Bucks. He has a player option for 2021-22 at $26.2 million, but in February becomes eligible for a four-year maximum deal worth $135 million.

There are factors that could give Bucks GM Jon Horst long-term pause, such as the nearly 24,000 minutes already on Holiday’s odometer or the fact he only has appeared in 30 career playoff games. But any optimistic view of what their team accomplishes this season and beyond must see this as more than a one-year fling.

“Having Holiday on the team is big time,” said Antetokounmpo, in a little role reversal rooting for Holiday’s next deal. “He’s a great leader. He’s a great human being. He can defend. He can score the ball. He’s going to bring that edge that we need.”

Said Holiday in anticipation of 2020-21’s newness for him: “I want a chance to put a ring on my finger. You can see it in their eyes that they want that too.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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