PHOENIX — Jrue Holiday had a second straight ugly offensive performance to open the NBA Finals, finishing 7-for-21 with 17 points in the Milwaukee Bucks‘ 118-108 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 on Thursday night.
But as this series shifts back to Milwaukee for Game 3 on Sunday night, and with the Bucks now two losses away from their season ending just short of their goal, Holiday has one important person still firmly in his corner: Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“Just keep talking to him, keep telling him to be aggressive,” said Antetokounmpo, after finishing with a postseason career-high 42 points of his own in 40 minutes, when asked what his message for Holiday would be heading into Game 3. “No matter what’s going on, you’ve got to stay aggressive and you cannot get in your feelings. It’s hard not to. You know, NBA Finals, 20,000 people booing you and all that, it’s kind of hard.
“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 Coach. It’s about all of us. … If there’s a game that you’re 3-for-12 or whatever the case might be and you can rebound the ball or get a steal or do something else to help the team win, that’s what it’s all about right now. I think he understands that.
“I know he’s going to be there when we need him the most and I don’t worry about it. He’s a great basketball player. He’s a great basketball player. He’s played great all year and he’s going to continue to play great for this team.”
Holiday is now 11-for-35 through the first two games of this series and has scored a combined 27 points — the same number he finished with in Milwaukee’s closeout 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 certainly was in Game 2, taking nine shots in the first quarter alone, but the results were not much different. Holiday finished the first half just 3-for-14 from the field, and while he shot better in the second half, going 4-for-7 from the field, it still was a performance far below what the Bucks needed to keep pace with the Suns.
“I think we had a lot of open shots that we didn’t make,” Holiday said. “I know me personally, there were a couple layups there that I usually make that kind of rimmed in and out. Had some good looks.
“Giannis had a great game getting to the basket, penetrating. I feel like we did a pretty good job of penetrating and making plays for other people, but just got to do it a little bit better.”
There wasn’t much Antetokounmpo could do better. Still just nine days removed from what looked like it could be a devastating knee injury in Game 4 against the Hawks — later revealed to be a hyperextended left knee that kept him out for a week and saw him return Tuesday for 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, a steal and three blocks.
The problem for the Bucks, however, was that he didn’t get much help — specifically from Holiday and Middleton. In addition to Holiday’s 7-for-21 showing, Middleton went 5-for-16 from the field in Game 2 and has yet to attempt a free throw in the series.
The combined 12-for-37 shooting performance from Holiday and Middleton in Game 2 was the worst by a starting backcourt in an NBA Finals game since Kobe Bryant and Ron Harper went a combined 10-for-37 in Game 6 in 2000 against the Indiana Pacers.
Shaquille O’Neal’s 41 points and 12 rebounds in that game was good enough to lift the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA title. Antetokounmpo’s performance, on the other hand, simply serves as a small positive on a night when the Bucks were unable to even this best-of-seven series at a game apiece.
“Just try to find that balance,” Middleton said. “At the same time, try to play through him when he has it rolling like that. When he sees a crowd, we have to be able to help him out.”
Still, the shooting woes for Milwaukee’s backcourt 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 foul shots — the second-most Milwaukee has allowed in a game this postseason — and outscoring Milwaukee in transition, the Bucks spent the 48 hours between Games 1 and 2 repeatedly saying they needed to rectify both of those issues.
They managed to accomplish those goals, as Milwaukee finished with a 23-14 advantage in free throws attempted and a 17-7 edge in fast break points in Game 2. But while the Bucks spent time plugging those holes, it allowed other cracks to form in Milwaukee’s defense.
Specifically, the Suns went 20-for-40 from 3-point range — including Booker going 7-for-12, with three of those makes coming at crucial points in the fourth quarter when the Bucks were threatening to get themselves back into the game.
“I think a little bit of overhelping,” Middleton said, when asked to diagnose what allowed Phoenix to get free so often from deep. “[Paul] and Book, they were able to get into the pick-and-roll play and get in the middle. Draw a crowd to helps sometimes. Sometimes we overhelp and sometimes they hit tough shots. They did a good job of spreading the floor, getting to the middle and then drive-and-kick and find the shooters.”
Meanwhile, as Milwaukee scrambled to try to stop Phoenix in the fourth quarter, including downsizing and playing guard Pat Connaughton instead of center Brook Lopez in an effort to both juice the offense and create more pressure defensively, the Bucks failed to get a couple of critical defensive rebounds.
The most painful of those moments came when the Bucks were trailing by six with under 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 great part about the playoffs,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said, when asked about the choice to play small and take Lopez off the floor. “Sometimes you need to play smaller, more shooting, things of that nature, and it can hurt you in other areas. It’s like that give-and-take game.
“I thought Brook had good minutes. I thought Brook helped us. But that small group, we’ve done it in other series, other games. They’ve got to rebound. Everybody’s got to participate. You’ve got to be able to do both.”
The Bucks haven’t been able to do enough in Games 1 or 2 to get a win in this series. But despite the odds being against them down 0-2 heading back to Milwaukee, the Bucks took solace in the fact that they were in this same position just a few weeks ago when they dropped the opening two games against the Brooklyn Nets in the Eastern Conference semifinals on the road.
Milwaukee went on to win that series in seven games. And, as the Bucks head home, Antetokounmpo was confident he and his teammates would be able to figure out a way to turn this series around, as well.
“I think no matter what we say, we know what the deal is,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s as simple as that. We’ve got to go back home and do our job. They did their job. We’ve got 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 one another 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 like we know what the deal is, man. We got to go back home and protect home.”