When Khris Middleton went down in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first round series against the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee lost its most reliable perimeter scorer and its most trusted on-ball creator beyond Giannis Antetokounmpo, who already shoulders a considerable creative burden.
The player thrust into the spotlight in Middleton’s absence has been Jrue Holiday, the third star they acquired two years ago who helped them crack the code and finally win a championship last year. Without Middleton alongside him, though, Holiday’s worst tendencies on offense and propensity to go through shooting woes have been magnified. For the second straight year, Holiday has seen his efficiency plummet in the playoffs with the Bucks, as he’s gone from 50.2/40.2/77.2 combined shooting splits in the regular season to 39.5/30.8/75.3 splits in the last two postseasons.
A year ago, his defensive presence alongside Herculean efforts from Giannis and Middleton were enough to mask those issues in a way they never could with Eric Bledsoe, who Holiday was brought in at a hefty price to replace specifically due to postseason struggles. Now, with Middleton out, Holiday needs to be the Bucks’ secondary star on offense and the results have been rough. Against the Celtics, Holiday is averaging 21.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2.8 steals per game, which are all more than respectable raw numbers, but he’s required 23 shot attempts per game to get those 21 points, shooting a dreadful 33.7 percent from the field and 29.6 percent from three on nearly seven attempts per night.
With Middleton ruled out for the rest of the series, the Bucks will need Holiday to turn things around if they’re going to find a way to get past Boston. Holiday has accepted the challenge of being a self-creator to a detrimental degree for the Bucks, as 46.7 percent of his shot attempts in the series (10.8 per game) have been pull-ups. He’s shooting just 34.7 percent on those attempts (31.6 percent from three). The problem is, this isn’t that different from how he operated in the regular season, where 43.7 percent of Holiday’s shots (6.2 per game) were classified as pull-ups, and he shot a terrific 45.8 percent on them (40.6 percent from three).
The biggest issue is that a huge amount of Holiday’s offense is coming in isolation, and without Middleton on the floor, the best perimeter defenders are now assigned to Holiday, meaning he’s no longer getting favorable matchups to attack 1-on-1. That’s an issue against any team, but particularly the Celtics who can deploy a number of terrific one-on-one defenders with length to frustrate him into some rather terrible shots.
Jrue Holliday finished the game as a -23, and Derrick White was a big reason for that. pic.twitter.com/qjkn2Nafb5
— Pull up shoot (@NElGHT_) May 10, 2022
Jrue struggling against great defence pic.twitter.com/5PEz6tse1g
— Felix (@BelixFellamy) May 10, 2022
Boston is able to consistently throw length in front of Holiday. It can be with his primary defender — usually Marcus Smart and Derrick White — or in switches with Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams, Al Horford, and others. Typically, Holiday feasts on smaller defenders, using his 6’3 frame and tremendous strength to push them into his spots on the floor, create separation, and rise up over them. So far against the Celtics, he’s not creating that same separation and is struggling to finish over good contests from Boston’s tenacious, rangy defenders.
It’s become fairly clear over a 32 game sample across the last two postseasons that Holiday’s normal shot diet is simply not as effective in the playoffs, and those issues are now amplified without Middleton taking some of these possessions and attention away from Holiday. His shot chart for the series is hideous, without any real success from anywhere.
The 14-for-44 on non-restricted area midrange shots are particularly jarring, while 9-for-21 in the restricted area is well below league average. Holiday keeps banging his head into that wall over and over. The Celtics are happy to let him isolate on their terrific individual defenders and put up contested looks that often have little chance of going in. If Milwaukee is going to get its offense going, the answer lies in asking Holiday to try and do less on his own.
The Celtics defense is as good as there is against isolation offenses, as evidenced by their success against the Nets as Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant found it incredibly difficult to create good looks consistently. When the Bucks get the Celtics defense moving, they’ve found some success, and they’re going to have to find ways to do that in Games 5-7 if they’re going to move on. Initiating the offense earlier in the clock has helped, as has sliding Holiday down onto the baseline, allowing him to be an outlet for Giannis when the Celtics send their inevitable help his way, which creates a much better look from the short midrange for Holiday than one of his head-down drives to nowhere.
Value of having a guard (Jrue Holiday) who can play in the dunker spot when Giannis is at the 5: pic.twitter.com/N9tOxi6z1q
— Jackson Lloyd (@JacksonLloydNBA) May 10, 2022
Boston’s defense knows Holiday and Giannis want to go downhill, and have built their halfcourt defense to try and limit those opportunities. But when the Bucks push the pace and start running action before the Celtics are set up, they can catch them off guard and create driving lanes for Holiday without the same resistance, like this high double drag look that Holiday rejects once Brown jumps to the side, giving him a straight line drive to the rim.
Giannis dissected the defense and now it is Holiday's turn. He rejects the double drag as the Celtics are getting ready to defend it. That is on Brown, he has to force Holiday to go towards the help but his feet are all wrong, too easy for Jrue. pic.twitter.com/GKWrJlsUdd
— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) May 10, 2022
Throughout the series, transition and semi-transition have been where the Bucks have had success, but that can only account for so much of a team’s offense. As such, they’ll have to find halfcourt success and a lot of that is going to be incumbent on Holiday being more trusting in those around him. While Boston is built to frustrate wing and perimeter players, there are opportunities to play above the rim that the Bucks could also look to take more advantage of against the aggressive switching of the Celtics.
This is particularly the case when Giannis is on the bench and the Bucks offense becomes heavily reliant on Holiday for creation. Pairing Brook Lopez with Holiday to work pick-and-roll action, with Lopez diving to the rim against a much smaller defender since Boston is so quick to switch their bigs out on the perimeter, would be a way to take advantage of the Celtics relative lack of size.
The Bucks are going to need Holiday to start making some of the shots he normally does in the regular season, but against a Boston team built to frustrate him with its length, Holiday and the Bucks need to be more adaptable in the final three games of this series. As much as he loves to isolate and attack mismatches, there just aren’t many opportunities to do that, aside from the few minutes Payton Pritchard and Daniel Theis are on the floor.
Otherwise, just about everyone in the Celtics’ rotation is long enough and strong enough to keep him from getting clean looks and, while Milwaukee needs him to continue being aggressive, the end result of that attack needs to be more passing than it has been so far this series.