2021 NBA Finals

Jrue Holiday's two-way masterpiece lifts Bucks to championship precipice

Milwaukee's All-Defensive First Team guard finally breaks out on offense ... and still wins it with an incredible defensive play.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo were all smiles after securing the first road victory of this NBA Finals.

PHOENIX — The night was filled with enough anecdotal evidence of greatness and carried such historical implications that July 17 may soon be declared a Holiday in the state of Arizona.

Forgive the basketball citizens of Phoenix and the surrounding desert if they ever refuse to acknowledge it, though. Because if this tight championship series was just shook and triggered by the overall Game 5 excellence of Jrue Holiday, only folks in Milwaukee will forever cherish and celebrate what happened Saturday in the newly-named Footprint Center.

We’ll get to how he started the game, then changed it, then put the Bucks in control of it. But first, it’s necessary to detail how he won it at the end, with a reach and a grab and a rip of the ball away from Devin Booker right in the suspenseful and hysterical moment of truth.

It’s the kind of play that champions make, that players who do not shy from the big stage make, that superb defenders make. Holiday was all that with 16 seconds left, with the Bucks nervously hanging onto a slippery one-point lead, with the building shaking from all the noise and with Booker — who once again terrorized the Bucks throughout the game — angling for a way to break the Bucks’ heart and grip.

Booker drove the lane, saw a wall of Bucks, then pump-faked … for a fatal second. That’s all Holiday needed to stray from Chris Paul and provide some help and wrap a bow-tie on a tremendous night for him. How many players would stick with their man and not make a play in that situation? Perhaps more than you think.

But not Holiday. Not this All-Defensive First Team guard. When Booker turned and exposed the ball, Holiday’s quick hands screamed “Gimmie that.”

Jrue Holiday snaps Finals slump with 27-point, 13-assist performance in Game 5.

“There was a lot of activity around Booker,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Players have to make plays and Jrue made a huge play, an instinctive play. He’s an incredible defender with strong hands.”

Holiday said, modestly: “I thought he was going to shoot it. Once he pumped faked, I thought I should stay down, and he turned into me. It was great team defense.”

Once with the ball, Holiday dribbled downcourt, along with a hustling Giannis Antetokounmpo. And here’s where the Bucks, whose basketball intelligence has been questioned more than once in this series, made another great decision:

Holiday didn’t pump the breaks and wait to be fouled. Also, there was no timeout, by the players or Budenholzer. They kept it moving. They played on, Holiday and Giannis going 2-on-1, with Holiday gently tossing a lob pass and Giannis executing an acrobatic dunk that popped the life out of the arena and put the NBA Finals in Milwaukee’s hands.

“Giannis took off and he was calling for the ball,” explained Holiday. “I just threw it as high as I could.”

Watch every angle of Jrue Holiday's key steal on Devin Booker.

And so: The Bucks just claimed the last two games of this series with The Block and now The Grab.

As the series heads to Milwaukee with the Bucks in position to clinch a title, they’ll go with the fresh memory of their three premier players hitting their stride on the same night. Nobody ever accused the Bucks of having a true Big Three, yet Giannis and Holiday and Khris Middleton fit the description perfectly Saturday.

Giannis was consistent with the mid-range jumper and led the Bucks with a highly-efficient 32 points. He also played cleverly when trapped by passing out of double teams and finding teammates for six assists, without committing a turnover.

Middleton missed six of his first seven shots … and then made 11 of his last 16 to punish the Suns for the second straight game. There were times when Giannis and Holiday looked for Middleton to take over for stretches and he delivered, with 29 points.

For Holiday, this goes down as his signature game of the series to date, where everything went right for a change, where he was the most impactful player on a floor shared with Giannis and Booker and Middleton. It has been a sketchy Finals for Holiday offensively. He has missed a batch of bunny shots at the rim, failed to find the touch from 3-point range and was coming off a dreadful 4-for-20 display in Game 4.

At least his defense bailed him out; Holiday more than once mentioned how he could always find other ways to leave a favorable mark and therefore he was never discouraged by his faulty shooting. His D on Paul since Game 3 has been nothing short of stellar. And this is what sets Holiday apart from his peers at the point guard position and why the Bucks sent a haul of draft picks and players to the Pelicans to get him in a trade before the season.

“Whatever I can do to help my team is more important,” he said. “I know I can do other things. Just be aggressive at all times.”

Pat Connaughton on Holiday's steal: 'We're built on defense'

And get this: The last-minute strip of Booker was barely his best steal of the night — nor was it his only strip of Booker.

In the third quarter came an amazing sequence that neatly described Holiday’s night: He stripped Booker — who had made five straight baskets for the Suns and was in a serious groove — in the open floor, then capped the play with a step-back 3-pointer, effectively tossing ice water on the rally.

The Bucks are putting Holiday in a position where most would fail: He’s asked to apply defense on Paul, perhaps the smartest point guard of this generation, and one with a shifty dribble, for almost 94 feet. Also, Holiday must guard Booker at times and Booker is among the toughest assignments in basketball, especially at the moment; he had his second straight 40-point game.

“With Jrue, it’s his ability to impact the ball and make everybody uncomfortable,” said Budenholzer. “He can get his hands on the ball and make deflections. It all adds up. It’s a reason why he’s such a good fit with us.”

The best part of Holiday’s bravo performance was the balance, then. He scored 27 points (18 in the first half) with 13 assists and three steals. He found his spots on the floor. At one point Holiday was 10-for-13 shooting. The combination of passing and shooting was easily Holiday’s best this Finals.

And so it was tough to tell where Holiday’s impact was greatest. He shook off two quick fouls, after it appeared the Suns would run the Bucks off the floor — they built a 16-point first quarter lead — and helped Milwaukee shoot 32-for-45 in the middle two quarters.

Game 6 is in a few days and the Fiserv Forum will become the unofficial State Capitol of Wisconsin. The Bucks are undefeated there in the NBA Finals and obviously will be gunning for the second championship in franchise history.

“It’s a great opportunity for us but you got to go out and play,” Budenholzer said. “We’re excited about the opportunity.”

The goal for the Bucks is to win a fourth straight game and ensure that basketball in Phoenix officially ended Saturday. If that’s the case and there’s no Game 7, then until another ball bounces in Footprint Center, it belongs to Jrue Holiday.

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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