‘I love him’: Holiday’s defense was the difference in Game 5

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BOSTON — The relationship between Giannis Antetokounmpo and teammate Khris Middleton, now nine years in, is well known for its depth and trust.

But about that Jrue Holiday relationship …

“It’s blooming, it’s blooming!” Antetokounmpo said after the Milwaukee Bucks finished off a jaw-dropping display of clutch play in stealing a 110-107 Game 5 victory over the Boston Celtics Wednesday night.

“I love him.”

Antetokounmpo, the space over his right eye caked in skin glue after numerous attempts to close an oozing laceration that plagued him throughout the dramatic fourth quarter, had wrapped Holiday up in a hug moments after the final buzzer — and rightly so.

The Bucks traded three first-round picks for Holiday in 2020 — a deal for a then 30-year-old guard that was questioned at the time — and eventually signed him to a $135 million extension last year. Those felt like bargains after he delivered another in what has become a long list of defensive gems. In this case, one a diamond, the other a ruby.

The nuanced greatness of the play he made with eight seconds left and the Bucks up by one point — after a dramatic putback by Bobby Portis that deserves its own novella — is hard to communicate even if you saw it and then replayed it.

Holiday was defending Jaylen Brown, who scored 16 of his 26 points in the third quarter. But the Celtics had spent the fourth attacking the easier mark, Pat Connaughton, and that’s where Marcus Smart went for a potential game-winning shot. It had worked, sort of, because Smart was in the process of getting a clean look when Holiday broke off from Brown.

What happened next is all will, instincts and fortune favoring the prepared. Holiday said in the moment he believed Smart wouldn’t be able to see if Brown was open. Holiday was right, in fact, Smart never even saw the blur wearing No. 21 that cleanly ripped the shot out of his hands before it could enter Celtics lore as a game-winner.

But instead of swatting it and risking knocking the ball out of bounds only to stay with Boston and another chance to win, Holiday grabbed the ball in midair to try to keep possession. As he landed from his leap, he was close to the baseline and had to dance to control the ball and stay in bounds. But he gathered it and managed to throw it off of Smart to retain possession and finish off one of the most graceful thefts you’ll ever see.

Smart, the just-named Defensive Player of the Year, was speechless.

“It’s not like I planned it out or anything,” Holiday said. “I just went after it, it was instinctual.”

The Celtics still had a chance to tie the game with 5.9 seconds left, down three points after Holiday’s forced turnover created two free throws for vital separation for Connaughton. But Holiday iced Smart again, picking his pocket as he raced up the floor looking for a way to get the Celtics a 3-pointer. Within seconds he was in Antetokounmpo’s arms and the Bucks were one win from taking this tremendous series.

“He’s a winner. Jrue Holiday is a winner,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Ask any player in this league, any coach in this league, he’s a winner.”

All of this overlooks that he scored eight of his 24 points in the fourth, including a 3-pointer with 42 seconds left that tied the game to finish a 14-point Bucks comeback. With Middleton sidelined by a sprained knee, the Bucks have needed Holiday’s offense as well as his defense.

Antetokounmpo was the game’s dominant force as he scored 40 points with 11 rebounds. The Bucks were on the ropes a handful of times and Antetokounmpo’s basket attacks kept them in the game. Portis was the difference-maker with his putback, which came after Brown and Smart lost the rebound when both went for it in a friendly fire disaster that could end up being one of the most fateful moments in the entire NBA playoffs.

Last season the defining moment of the Bucks’ run to the title came when Kevin Durant’s basket at the end of the fourth quarter in Game 7 only forced overtime for Brooklyn because his toe was on the 3-point line. This season, it could be that Portis ended up with an unlikely offensive rebound and was able to put it back.

But even with all that, Holiday was the hero.

“We’re in Boston, we’re down 14 in the fourth quarter and people would say that everything’s against us,” Holiday said. “But we come together. I feel like we’ve done that multiple times and we live and die by that. Having each other’s backs, just wrapping arms and going up there fighting, honestly just leaving it on the line.”

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