In the opener of an NBA Finals supposedly lacking drawing power, all but one of the many participating current, former and future stars met the moment on the game's biggest stage, including two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who exceeded expectations in his return from a scary hyperextended left knee.
One-time All-Star and reigning All-Defensive first-team selection Jrue Holiday admittedly "had a bad shooting night."
Beyond his 4-for-14 performance from the field, if Holiday does not narrow the gargantuan gap from Game 1 between himself and Suns star Chris Paul on both ends of the floor, this series is a wrap.
Milwaukee spent most of its future draft capital in November to swap Eric Bledsoe and George Hill for Holiday, but on occasion in these playoffs Holiday has looked more like Bledsoe than someone worthy of that investment. The Bucks paid a price for consistency, and they cannot afford it failing them in the Finals.
Bucks stars Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton combined for 49 points, 24 rebounds and eight assists in the series opener, wiping clean the production from rising Suns standouts Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton (49 points, 21 rebounds and six assists combined), and Milwaukee's role players outscored their Suns counterparts, 46-37. It was Paul's 32 points on 19 shots to Holiday's 10 on 14 that needed mitigating.
The Bucks started the night with 6-foot-5 bulldog P.J. Tucker defending the Point God, so when Paul ran the pick-and-roll with the ever-improving 7-foot Ayton, Tucker could switch with center Brook Lopez and they would not be disadvantaged at both positions. Milwaukee's coaching staff got caught overthinking it.
Listen, the Suns revolve around Paul's offensive command, and Holiday is arguably the best on-ball defender in the league. His defensive work opposite Portland Trail Blazers stud Damian Lillard in the 2018 playoffs was as impressive as anything we have seen at his position in a generation. Ask him to do it again.
Milwaukee survived switching a loafing Lopez onto Paul in the first quarter, but the 11-time All-Star predictably figured out how to attack the Bucks, whether or not their center dropped into coverage. If they are going to switch anything, it should be in favor of fewer times their bigs are left on an island. That could mean leveraging Antetokounmpo's athleticism at center more often, so long as his knee carries the load.
"Brook played defense pretty well, but that's what CP does, those mid-range 2s, those 15-footers, side-steps to the right, he makes those," Holiday said. "Maybe just do something else. Make him put it in his left hand. Make him drive to the basket. Give him maybe a different look and do something different next time."
Here's an idea for a different look: Make it Holiday's life mission to stop Paul in this series. Granted, Holiday performed well against Booker, who was 0-for-6 from the field and twice turned it over when they were matched up together, per the NBA's tracking data, but Game 1 made obvious what should have been clear from even rudimentary scouting reports: Paul is the head of Phoenix's snake, and he must be contained.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer finally unleashed Holiday on Paul with his team trailing by 20 points late in the second half. Holiday hounded Paul for a stretch, nearly forcing two turnovers — one at halfcourt and the other on the left sideline — that still disrupted Phoenix's offense. That stretch coincided with Milwaukee mounting a mini 7-0 comeback to crawl within 101-94 with 7:16 remaining in the fourth quarter.
So, what stopped the bleeding from Paul's vicious 16-point third quarter?
"It was just being aggressive, so at that point I felt like I wanted to just annoy him, you know," Holiday told reporters of his change in mentality. "Kind of get him off rhythm. Be able to make him pass the ball or take tough shots, tough 2s. Yeah, that's something we're going to have to make an adjustment in Game 2."
Attention to aggression is also what Holiday pointed to when he scored a combined 52 points in Antetokounpo's absence during series-clinching wins in Games 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Asked why he isn't aggressive all the time by TNT's Charles Barkley, Holiday said, "Man, you're right, and I've heard it a lot. I've heard it from everybody here at the gym. I've heard it from my family, my brothers, and this is what it's about, especially when it's down to 2-2 or 3-2, I need to come out and assert myself."
Credit to Booker and the rest of Phoenix's defense for contesting Holiday's open 3-point looks and ensuring he got nothing easy at the rim, but there are seams in the space created by Antetokounmpo and Middleton, and Holiday has the strength to drive into contact and finish. Two free-throw attempts is too few.
The Bucks cannot afford to wait for Holiday to dial up his aggression. He can fall into a comfort zone of finding satisfaction in doing little things well — cerebrally understanding the game in ways that maximize the talents of his teammates and limit those of his opponents — and that has made him one of the game's more underrated players, but if all it takes is aggression to do big things well, this is no time to lack it. This is the NBA Finals. If you are not aggressive from tip to buzzer, you simply will not match Paul's will to win.
"It's always a balance for Jrue," Budenholzer told reporters after the Game 1 loss. "He likes to set his teammates up. He likes to get everybody involved, so I think it's partly on me. I've got to make sure he's getting in situations and spots where he can be aggressive. I think he'll be better going into Game 2."
He better, or the Bucks will be facing a 2-0 hole before the series heads back to Milwaukee on Sunday.
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