In a scenario that seemed relatively unthinkable just over a week ago, the Bucks are now just 48 minutes from the Larry O’Brien Trophy following Saturday’s 123-119 nail-biter victory over the Suns. And if Milwaukee can in fact close the deal on Tuesday night (or Thursday in Phoenix), we should remember the Bucks with a special designation: this would be perhaps the most unconventional champion since the 2004 Pistons, one that hoists the Larry O’Brien Trophy with a Big 3 that bears little resemblance to superteams of previous seasons.
The Bucks emerged as a championship contender over the last half-decade with a deeply unlikely duo, pairing Giannis Antetokounmpo with former second-round pick Khris Middleton. And when it was time to add a third key piece in the offseason, Milwaukee stuck to its blueprint.
Chris Paul traveled to the desert rather than the Great Lakes. The farm wasn’t dealt for James Harden. Instead, Milwaukee opted to sacrifice Eric Bledsoe and four years of pick control for Jrue Holiday, a one-time All-Star who had crossed 20 points per game just once in 11 seasons. The move raised plenty of eyebrows considering the hefty price tag. But such skepticism has completely evaporated as the Bucks now sit one win away from the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
It wasn’t so long ago that Holiday's detractors puffed out their chest in vindication. Milwaukee’s $160 million man turned in a woeful effort in Game 1 of the 2021 NBA Finals, shooting just 4-14 from the field as he finished with a minus-16. Holiday clanked open triples and blew simple looks at the rim, and more importantly, he failed to provide any deterrent to Paul as the Suns seized a Game 1 win. As Holiday missed 14 of 21 attempts in a Game 2 loss, Milwaukee’s November blockbuster increasingly looked like a blunder.
We’ve seen a different series from Holiday since his struggles in Phoenix. He buried five threes and posted a plus-22 in a Game 3 blowout. Game 4 featured another ugly shooting effort, but a cursory look at the stat line obscures his impact. Holiday absolutely hounded Paul for nearly 43 minutes, holding the (potentially-hobbled) Point God to 10 points on 13 shots. Holiday isn’t a perfect player in any sense. His shot ebbs and flows. He’s not exactly a physical specimen. Feed Holiday late in the game, and you probably won’t like the result. But Holiday is so much more than his offensive profile suggests. He proved as much in Game 5.
Holiday turned in his best scoring night of the Finals on Saturday, finishing the evening with 27 points on 12-20 shooting. He drilled three triples in the second quarter, a period that saw a 16-point Phoenix lead completely erased at the half. Yet it was Holiday’s defensive brilliance that stole the show down the stretch.
Phoenix cut Milwaukee’s lead to just one with under 20 seconds remaining, the result of brilliant backcourt play and a pair of missed free throws from Antetokounmpo. A missed floater from Holiday gave the Suns the ball with a chance to take the lead in the final seconds, with the ball once again in Devin Booker’s hands as he looked to put the icing on a 40-point night. Holiday had other ideas. He wrestled the ball away from Booker and started a fast break, finding Antetokounmpo for a thunderous lob and subsequent foul. The play marked Antetokounmpo’s second classic Finals moment in as many games, and an offensive rebound all-but-sealed the contest after Khris Middleton hit one of two free throws. There is no grouching in sight regarding the Holiday trade as the Finals heads back to Milwaukee. In fact, acquiring the UCLA product could go down as the most beneficial trade in franchise history.
Holiday’s brilliance will likely remain the lasting mark of Saturday’s Game 5 classic, though the win was one of Milwaukee’s most balanced of the season in terms of its superstar trio. Holiday, Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton all finished with at least 25 points on Saturday, with each star taking his turn as the leading man. Holiday paced the first half with a blistering 11-14 from the field. Antetokounmpo tallied seven baskets in the paint in the second half, and his mammoth presence eliminated Phoenix’s ability to use its small-ball unit at any juncture. Middleton remained Milwaukee’s steady cog and late-game closer, snaking around screens en route to nine of the Bucks’ first 11 points of the third quarter. This trio doesn’t sport the scoring explosiveness of Brooklyn or the dynasty formerly known as Golden State. But this is a monstrous defensive group with the ability to punish opponents offensively from all three levels of the floor. On a night like Saturday, Milwaukee’s Big 3 can go to battle with any dominant trio of yesteryear.
We won’t write off the Suns quite yet as this series heads back to Milwaukee for a pivotal Game 6. Booker remains one of the game’s most explosive scorers, and Paul seemed to find a bit of a rhythm down the stretch on Saturday. But the longer this series goes, the more this becomes a stylistic mismatch. Milwaukee lived at the line earlier in this series, and it continues to punish the Suns in the paint. The Bucks tallied 11 offensive rebounds on Saturday, including five in the fourth quarter. Phoenix attempted just 11 free throws over the course of the evening. It attempted nine fewer threes than Milwaukee. Paul and Booker are mid-range specialists, but their current shot diet isn’t currently befitting of a champion. The Suns are running into a math problem as well as a Giannis problem as their season slips away.
Tuesday night could very well provide another classic after two truly special contests. Milwaukee’s offensive shortcomings are likely to prevent an early blowout, especially as Paul fights like hell to avoid the door closing on his best chance at a championship. But this is far from the Bucks teams of previous seasons, the ones who wilted at the slightest bit of adversity in the postseason. Perhaps the Holiday addition is to thank. Perhaps previous eliminations have brought out a new version of Antetokounmpo. Regardless of the reason, Milwaukee is peaking at the perfect time, riding its Big 3 to within one win of the title. A similar performance on Tuesday night should be enough to bring the Bucks their first championship since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar manned the paint 50 years ago.
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