Jrue Holiday struggles up front and knows he needs to improve: ‘Sometimes you just have to find a way’ – Advice Eating

With two and a half minutes left and a six-point lead in Sunday’s Game 4, the Boston Celtics had found their favorite matchup again. Jayson Tatum worked to create a position at the free-throw line against George Hill, but Hill pushed him towards the 3-point line on the catch. Tatum appreciated Hill, taking two dribbles down his left and getting up for a jumper, but he narrowly missed the front of the rim.

Immediately, Milwaukee Bucks point guard Jrue Holiday was on his way to the Bucks basket when he ran-up to save the long rebound at the free-throw line with only two Celtics defensemen in front of him and the rim. With play on the line, the other Celtics defenders managed to get back into position and Holiday pulled the ball back to build crucial offensive possession.

However, instead of running a set, the scramble had created the best possible matchup for Holiday and he worked in isolation against Derrick White at the top of the key. After a few dribbling moves and a step-through move on the rim, Holiday found himself on the rim, but missed his attempt just short of the front when White jacked him up on the rim with a last-second challenge.

The brief try on the rim was Holiday’s seventh straight miss and his last try of the game. In Game 4, Holiday made just five of his 22 shot attempts, including just one of six from behind the 3-point line. In four games, Holiday has 92 shots but only 31 (33.7 percent), including 8 of 27 shots from behind the 3-point line (29.6 percent). For the series, Holiday averages 21.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 6.0 assists per game but fails to score efficiently.

When asked about Holiday’s Game 4 looks, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer seemed to think a number of things were at play for his starting point keeper.

“As I often say with these questions, there is a bit of both,” said Budenholzer. “If we as a team and he as an individual do our clean looks better (the shots look better). And then you have to make some hard shots, and he’s a guy who can make a hard shot and get a hard shot. They play well defensively. Individually they are good. As a team they are good so give Boston credit and he just has to keep fighting and he will find himself.

If the Bucks win two of the last three games of this series, they’ll need more from Holiday and their offense, which is still averaging just 105.2 points per game in the postseason and is averaging a worst 100.5 points per 100 in the second round Possessions against the Celtics.

There are myriad reasons for Holiday’s offensive struggles, but let’s start with what might be the easiest to understand but hardest to prove: Holiday works really hard on defense.

During the second round of last season’s playoffs, Bucks forward PJ Tucker penned an epic eight-minute memoir about Nets forward Kevin Durant’s defending champion. It was really fascinating listening to him talk about the intricacies of slowing down an all-time great goalscorer, but during that explanation he also dropped that nugget that he plays offensively while trying to defend Durant.

“Man, I put so much energy into guarding Kevin Durant,” Tucker said. “People will never understand how hard it is and then you come down and play offense and it’s ‘good luck.’ Like I mean I literally every single game you have to be on your game because he can score every single game. It’s tough, so I’m doing everything I can. Offensively we have so many guys on our team who can score so I just try to clear the ground and get a shot when I have an open chance.

Holiday was tasked with defending either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown for almost every second he spent on the floor during that series. The Bucks did a fantastic job of slowing down the Celtics’ two superstars in the first four games of this series, and Holiday was a big part of that. It wouldn’t be shocking to find out that the Bucks’ gargantuan defensive effort led to poorer offensive performance under Holiday’s leadership, but Holiday declined to use that idea as an excuse for his poor offensive performance to date after Game 4.

“Must be tough. Everyone’s tired,” Holiday said. “Everyone on the pitch is fighting and grinding on both sides, playing hard defensively and offensively, but you just have to figure it out. Defense is hard…but you know, sometimes you just have to find a way.”

Part of the reason it seems like tired legs could be part of Holiday’s struggles is the fact that misses like this one from the first quarter of Game 4 are hard to explain.

Vacation is a great end to the edge. That’s a great pass from Giannis Antetokounmpo. And Holiday just misses it. Making that shot in Game 5 and beyond fits nicely into the “play better” adjustment category, but Holiday had similar issues last postseason against the Nets. In back-to-back postseasons, there have only been moments when Holiday misses shots he normally makes, and greater effort on the defensive might be the only thing that could explain it.

In addition to the difficult-to-explain misses, Holiday has also missed a number of shots that appear to have come from having greater offensive responsibility with Khris Middleton on the touchline with a left MCL sprain.

Holiday is a spectacular isolationist. According to stats from Synergy Sports, Holiday has averaged 1,005 points per possession on 184 isolated possessions this regular season, and his ability to score one-on-ones has always come in handy in the Bucks’ offensive system. Budenholzer relies on the isolation skills of Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton early in possession to throw defenses out of shape and create the ball movement every team craves, and late in possession to create those tough one-on-ones -One bucket hit that will make an Elite attack.

Such a shot is not so foreign to the Bucks in the regular season:

The Bucks regularly have Holiday and Middleton work in isolation against opposing big men on switches, and both players punish those big men with great footwork and stepback jumpers. But against a defense like the Celtics that changes almost every screen, the Bucks were forced to go matchup hunting and try to find the cheapest players to try and attack one-on-one.

“I’m missing a lot of what I normally do,” Holiday said after Game 4. “I’m still confident, I’ll still be taking the shots and I mean, that’s all I can really do. I won’t be passive or submissive, just be confident and try to see it through the edge.

Unfortunately, part of what makes the Celtics great defensively is that there really aren’t many prime targets. Derrick White is probably the best player on the court for that possession that Holiday can attack, but most people in the league would say White is an above average defender.

With only a few players in the lineup who can currently really flex a defense, Holiday has been forced to rely heavily on step-backs and pull-up jumpers in one-on-one situations, and that’s gotten him the most this series work made difficult.

There’s no easy fix for the Bucks here. There’s not just one thing they can do differently to suddenly unlock their offense and create easy shots on every possession. The Celtics are too strong defensively for that, but there are a few things the Bucks can do to make it easier for Holiday.

In Game 3, the Bucks emptied the left corner of the floor and brought Holiday to a dribble handoff with Antetokounmpo.

Holiday missed the floating layup, but that was one of the best looks the Bucks got in Game 3, and empty side pick-and-rolls and dribbling handovers with Antetokounmpo remain among the best light offense options. The Celtics will almost certainly continue to avoid letting Antetokounmpo run free to the rim. So using Holiday in these moves with Antetokounmpo on a blank side will usually give Holiday an attacking advantage and also keep helping defenders away from him.

As Holiday mentioned after the game, he can also make things easier for himself by simply passing the ball to his teammates.

Typically when the Celtics changed ball screen actions, Holiday would try to knock a Celtics man out of dribbling and make room for himself to take a jumper, but there is another option. Holiday could just throw the ball at Brook Lopez instead.

In Game 3, Lopez successfully posted Celtics big man Al Horford. In the first round, he made such a difference in the block against the Chicago Bulls that Holiday himself reminded the world that Lopez is a “bucket.” Holiday still has to attack big men when he gets one of them on switches, but he can also take some of the workload off by simply tossing the ball to Lopez and giving the big man some space.

“Yeah, I think maybe doing that a little bit more or even just using him as a threat,” Holiday said when asked about Game 4. It might be an advantage for us to use him a little more.”

Again, there are no easy answers, but there are a few ways the Bucks can try to make this easier on vacation, and the vacation can make it easier on itself. If the Bucks want to scrape together enough offense to get two of their next three games out, it will likely require a little bit of both.

(Photo: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

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