Jrue Holiday is the point guard the Bucks needed to fully reach their NBA Finals potential

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PHOENIX – The Milwaukee Bucks cycled through point guards.

Eric Bledsoe didn’t work. George Hill was a solid backup but not the starter the Bucks needed.

Milwaukee general manager Jon Horst surveyed the landscape in search of an upgrade in the short turnaround between the end of last season and the start of this season and he found the New Orleans Pelicans were willing to trade veteran Jrue Holiday.

It cost the Bucks three first-round draft picks, but if the NBA Finals is the goal, the deal was worth it considering the loss in the Eastern Conference finals in 2019 and the second-round bubble exit in 2020.

They finally had a point guard who could help Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, and when the Bucks lost Antetokounmpo to a hyperextended left knee in the conference finals, they were able to overcome Antetokounmpo’s absence and win the final two games of the series – in part because Holiday.

“Giannis being out or not, I knew that I had to be aggressive,” Holiday said. “I feel like the best way that I'm going to help my team is getting into the paint, penetrating, dishing after the threes, wide open looks and dishes to Brook (Lopez) to make monster dunks like that. So, honestly I think being aggressive, getting downhill, is something that helps our team out a lot and I have to continue to do that.”

A big storyline in the Finals will be the matchup of point guard Jrue Holiday (21) and Chris Paul.
A big storyline in the Finals will be the matchup of point guard Jrue Holiday (21) and Chris Paul.

Holiday, 31, a 12-year veteran, will figure prominently in the Finals against the Phoenix Suns with his matchup against Chris Paul on both ends of the court.

Limiting Paul is integral to minimizing what the Suns do offensively, and running the offense effectively while the pesky (irritating?) Paul defends him maximizes what the Bucks can do, especially if Antetokounmpo isn’t available.

Paul knows how important his matchup is.

“Jrue is just the consummate team guy,” Paul said. “Plays the game the right way, defends, can score. My family knows, like my parents, know his family very well. He's just like a good guy, like a great guy. I'm sure they're excited to have him, and that's what's going to make this series so tough.”

There will be times when Holiday guards Devin Booker, too. Not an easy assignment, but not unusual for Holiday who has guarded Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Trae Young in the playoffs.

“You just really have to know their tendencies, what they like to do,” Holiday said. “Just attention to details and try to be as solid as possible.”

In the playoffs, Holiday:

  • Averages 17.6 points, 8.4 assists and 5.4 rebounds

  • Increased his scoring to 22 points per game and playmaking to 10 assists per game while shooting 46.7% from the field and 37% on 3-pointers in the conference finals.

  • Had 25 points and 13 assists in Milwaukee’s Game 5 victory against Atlanta

  • Had 27 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in the Bucks’ series-clinching Game 6 victory against the Hawks.

Holiday had never played in the conference finals in four previous playoff appearances. He reached the conference semifinals with Philadelphia in 2012 and the conference semis with New Orleans in 2018.

“It feels awesome,” Holiday said in the immediate aftermath of winning the conference championship. “Again I'm still kind of on this high, but I'm going to the Finals. It's cool to think that as a little kid, this is what you watch the playoffs for. This is all the moments that I felt as a little kid watching TV, I lived them and went through them and now I get to go to the Finals and see what this is about. Again, man I'm just – I'm ecstatic.”

Holiday has had a solid career prior to joining Milwaukee. He made the All-Star team in 2013 and is a three-time All-Defense selection (2018, 2019 and 2021).

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He was also named the 2019-20 NBA teammate of the year, an indication of Holiday’s influence in the locker room.

At 6-3, 205 pounds, Holiday is a bigger point guard who likes to play physical and can guard three positions, which has allowed the Bucks to switch more often on defense, and when he isn’t initiating offense, he can play off the ball.

No matter who you ask, the key with Holiday is aggressive, and it applies to offense and defense, whether he’s attacking the defense or trying to knock opponents off their spots. Durant called Holiday the best defending guard in the NBA.

“It's been a theme for us, for him to be aggressive,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He knows that that's important to us. He knows that's when we're at our best.”

Apr 28, 2018; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) dribbles past New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday (11) in the third quarter in game one of the second round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-381753 ORIG FILE ID:  20180428_lbm_se9_217.JPG
Apr 28, 2018; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) dribbles past New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday (11) in the third quarter in game one of the second round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-381753 ORIG FILE ID: 20180428_lbm_se9_217.JPG

He was acquired for this moment, a necessary addition at point guard alongside Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Brook Lopez and P.J. Tucker.

“I've been so blessed over the last couple years, whatever, been going on, to be able to land in a spot like this to fulfill my dream,” Holiday said.

Holiday helped push the Bucks further than they had advanced in the Antetokounmpo era. But he doesn’t feel any pressure, and the Bucks invested in him with a four-year, $134.9 million contract extension that begins next season.

“I'm grateful for the Bucks,” he said. “I'm blessed for them to come and grab me the way that they did and to be put in this position. … I want to make the most of it, take advantage of it.

“I'm here to win. I think being put in this position to win and to have a chance to make it to the Finals and take advantage of that is what I'm here for. I think accolades from my teammates and the players around the league, they know what's up. They are in the trenches with me. They know what it takes to fight and to claw, and if I get the respect from them, that's all that really matters to me."

Holiday has committed to the U.S. men’s basketball team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. His wife, Lauren, is a former U.S. national team soccer player who won a gold medal (2008 Beijing, 2012 London) and World Cup championship (2015). If the U.S. wins, the Holidays will be among the nearly 70 married couples to win Olympic gold medals.

“It's an honor to play for your country, especially an opportunity like this to be able to go out there and have USA on your chest,” Holiday said. “Also my wife played, has two gold medals. I've experienced from a fan standpoint and I thought it would be cool to experience it from actually playing.”

Lauren also had advice for him.

"What she's told me is to just enjoy it," Holiday said. "It's an opportunity of a lifetime, and really just leave everything out there. Believe in yourself because you're prepared for it. And, most of all, just enjoy it. Everything that comes with it."

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Guard Jrue Holiday finally helped the Bucks maximize their potential