PHOENIX – Jrue Holiday continued its slow start to the NBA Finals, finishing 7-for-21 with 17 points in the Milwaukee Bucks’ 118-108 defeat to the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 on Thursday night at the Phoenix Suns Arena.
But as this series shifts back to Milwaukee for Game 3 on Sunday night, and with the Bucks now down 2-0 and two losses away from their season ending just outside their goal, Holiday has an important person still stuck in its corner: Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who scored a post-season career-high 42 points in 40 minutes on Thursday.
“Keep talking to him, keep telling him to be aggressive,”
“But at the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s not about him. It’s not about Khris [Middleton]. It’s not about coaching. It’s about all of us. … if there’s a game you’re 3-for-12 or whatever and you can rebound the ball or get a steal or do something else to help the team win, that’s what it’s about right now. I think he understands that.
“I know he will be there when we need him the most and I do not worry about that. He is a good basketball player. He has played well all year and he will continue to play well for this team. . “
Holiday is now 11-for-35 through the first two games of this series, scoring a total of 27 points – the same number he finished with in Milwaukee’s finish of the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
After Game 1, Holiday said he was determined to be more aggressive. He was determined in Game 2 and took nine shots in the first quarter alone, but the results were not very different. Holiday finished the first half just 3-for-14 off the field, and while he shot better in the second half and went 4-for-7 from the field, it was still an achievement far below what the Bucks needed to keep up with solene.
“I think we had a lot of open shots that we didn’t make,” Holiday said. “I know personally there were a few layups there that I usually do that kind of rhymed in and out. Had a good look.
“Giannis had a great game of getting to the basket and penetrating. I feel like we did a pretty good job of penetrating and making games for other people, but just made it a little better.”
There was not much Antetokounmpo could do better. Still only nine days removed from what looked like a devastating knee injury in Game 4 against the Hawks – later revealed to be a hyperextruded left knee that kept him out for a week and saw him return Tuesday to Game 1 of the Finals – Antetokounmpo was spectacular in game 2.
He finished the game 15-for-22 from the field and 11-for-18 from the free-throw line – going there more often than the Suns did as a team – while adding 12 rebounds, four assists, one steal and three blocks.
The problem for the Bucks, however, was that he did not get much help – specifically from Holiday and Middleton. In addition to Holiday’s 7-for-21 showing, Middleton went 5-for-16 off the field in Game 2 and have yet to attempt a free throw in the series.
Their Suns teammates Chris Paul and Devin Booker, meanwhile, outscored them 54-28.
The combined 12-for-37 shootout from Holiday and Middleton in Game 2 was the worst of a starting backcourt in an NBA Finals game when the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant and Ron Harper teamed up 10-for-37 against the Indiana Pacers in game 6 in the 2000 final.
Shaquille O’Neal’s 41 points and 12 rebounds in that game were good enough to lift the Lakers to an NBA title. Antetokounmpo’s performance, on the other hand, simply serves as a small positive on an evening when the Bucks were unable to even this best-of-seven series.
“Just try to find that balance,” Middleton said. “At the same time, try to play through him when he makes it roll like that. When he sees a crowd, we need to be able to help him out.”
Still, shooting problems for Milwaukee’s ambush were only part of the problem for the Bucks in Game 2.
After the Suns defied their usual norms in Game 1, both by getting 26 bad shots – the second most Milwaukee has allowed in a game this season – and outscoring Milwaukee in transition, the Bucks spent the 48 hours between games 1 and 2 repeatedly and said they needed to correct both of these issues.
They managed to reach those goals as Milwaukee finished with a 23-14 lead in free throw attempts and a 17-7 edge in quick points in Game 2. But while the Bucks spent time connecting these holes, it allowed other cracks to form in Milwaukee’s defense.
Specifically, the Suns went 20-for-40 from the 3-point range – including Booker, who went 7-for-12, with three of those marks coming to crucial points in the fourth quarter as the Bucks threatened to get back into play.
“I think a little over-help,” Middleton said when asked to diagnose what enabled Phoenix to get free so often from deep. “[Paul] and Book, they were able to get into the pick-and-roll game and get in the middle. Attract a crowd for help sometimes. Sometimes we overpower, and sometimes they hit hard shots. They did a good job of spreading the floor, getting to the center and then running and kicking and finding the shooters. “
Meanwhile, as Milwaukee struggled to try to stop Phoenix in the fourth quarter, including cuts and play guard Pat Connaughton instead of center Brook Lopez in an attempt to both juice the offense and create more pressure defensively, the Bucks could not get a few critical defensive rebounds.
The most painful of those moments came when the Bucks were followed by six with less than five minutes to go, and after Phoenix got two offensive rebounds to extend a possession, Paul buried a 3-pointer in the corner to push Phoenix’s lead back to nine.
Milwaukee never got that close again.
“That’s the big part of the playoffs,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said when asked about the choice between playing small and taking Lopez off the floor. “Sometimes you have to play less, more shooting, stuff like that, and that can hurt you in other areas. It’s such a give-and-take game.
“I thought Brook had good minutes. I thought Brook helped us. But the little group we’ve done in other series, other games. They have to come back. Everyone has to participate. You have to be in able to do both. “
The Bucks have not been able to do enough in Game 1 or 2 to win in this series. But despite the odds being 2-0 against them going back to Milwaukee, the Bucks took comfort in the fact that they were in the same position just a few weeks ago when they dropped the initial two games on the road against the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Milwaukee went on to win this series in seven games. And when the Bucks went home, Antetokounmpo was convinced that he and his teammates could also figure out a way to turn this series around.
“I think no matter what we say, we know what the deal is,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s as simple as that. We have to go home and do our job. They did their job. We have to do our job.
“We’ve been here before and we were able to get the job done. Hopefully we can put ourselves in position and we can believe in each other and we can play together and we can have fun. We can compete, and we can dive on the floor, we can make shots, put ourselves in a position to win the game.
“But just like we know what the deal is, man. We have to go home and protect the home.”