Just short of a month before Giannis Antetokounmpo signed his super-max contract, the Milwaukee Bucks traded for Jrue Holiday. Perhaps Giannis was going to sign all along. But Holiday was the move to convince the two-time MVP that the Bucks were serious about winning a championship.
Fast forward to the present, and the Bucks are now one win from making that happen, up 3-2 on the Phoenix Suns after falling behind 2-0 in the series. If the Bucks finish this off, Giannis is the certain Finals MVP. Yet it was Holiday who swung this series. After Chris Paul shredded Milwaukee in Game 1, Holiday replaced P.J. Tucker as the main Paul defender. Over the next three games, Paul turned the ball over 15 times, his most over a three-game playoff stretch since 2012, while averaging 17 points -- or roughly half of his Game 1 output.
Holiday has made Paul's life hell, picking him up at three-quarters court and bodying him every step of the way. He's fighting over screens like a man squeaking through a cracked doorway, staying attached to Paul to cut off his downhill angle:
Here Holiday gets above the screen before it's even set and stays so connected to Paul that he is forced into what should've been called a travel (you can clearly see Paul's feet hit the ground, after he goes airborne for lack of space, before he gets rid of the ball). Instead of complaining about the non-call, Holiday keeps pursuing the play and eventually funnels Paul into an out-of-options jump shot that Giannis is waiting to swallow up:
Gone are the easy switches that allow Paul to play one-on-one against a big man. Check the clip below. In Game 1, Paul would've found himself being guarded by Brook Lopez after Holiday had to work his way under the Deandre Ayton screen, but now Holiday races back in front of Paul, and a lazy turnover ensues:
Mind you, this is not just a "don't switch" mandate for the Bucks. It's situational, requiring impromptu decisions, and Holiday is as smart as he is strong. In the clip above, he races back to Paul because Lopez is going to inherit the assignment if he doesn't, but in the clip you're about to see below, he lets the switch happen because it's Giannis Antetokounmpo waiting for Paul. From there, it's Holiday anticipating the lob pass to Ayton and blowing it up before it can get off the ground:
The Bucks can make that switch not only because Antetokounmpo and Tucker are viable options to defend Paul, but because Holiday, despite being on the wrong end of an eight-inch height and 50-pound weight disparity, can hold his own against Ayton. Watch here as Ayton tries to establish low position against Holiday, but instead is forced away from the restricted area and into a tough jump hook:
Holiday isn't just hounding Paul. He's taking turns on Devin Booker when he gets cooking, too, and Booker has not had nearly the success against Holiday as he has against other defenders. Here Holiday is keeping track of Paul but still stepping in to strip Booker on his drive:
Holiday's defensive prowess is starting to get its due in this series, but for most of the postseason it's been largely drowned out by talk of his offensive struggles. In the regular season, Holiday shot 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3. In the playoffs, that's down to 41 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3, and those numbers looked even worse before Holiday's masterful Game 5 performance.
Joining LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Walt Frazier and Jimmy Butler, Holiday became just the seventh player in history to record at least 27 points and 13 rebounds in an NBA Finals game. The following two sequences perfectly illustrate Holiday's two-way dominance as the series swung in Milwaukee's favor.
First, Holiday stones Devin Booker's multiple attempts to bump him backward before coming up with a steal, then he confidently dribbles back into one of of his three 3-pointers on the night:
And then the play that sealed the game: Holiday sinking down off Paul and straight up ripping the ball from Booker's hands like a child before tossing a dead-eye alley-oop to Antetokounmpo on the other end, giving Milwaukee a three-point lead with under 20 seconds to play:
Not everybody gets a signature NBA moment. Holiday got his on this play, which, if the Bucks hold on to win the title, will go down as the most important sequence of the Milwaukee franchise over the last half century:
You have to be happy for Holiday, who is universally regarded as one of the best guys in the league. He's not a superstar, but since he's getting paid like one, the critics are going to be extra harsh. He's stayed the course, weathered the Eric Bledsoe comparisons, and now he's having his moment with the Bucks on the brink of their first championship since 1971.