So, we’re two games in to these NBA Finals, 19 games into the playoffs, and we’re sitting around staring down the barrel of the gun... again.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this team cheat Death, and this also isn’t the first time we’ve seen Jrue Holiday struggle a bit against a playoff opponent since arriving in Milwaukee. But it’s particularly hard to ignore the fact that he was something of a significant no-show in the first two games of the Finals. You know, the Finals. The first Finals the Bucks have been to in nearly five decades. Those Finals.
The drop-off between theory and practice for Jrue had already been tough to stomach, but in the aftermath of Thursday’s 118-108 loss, this little tidbit came across my virtual desk:
Eric Bledsoe playoff shooting splits with the Bucks:— StatMuse (@statmuse) July 9, 2021
— 41.1 FG%
— 25.4 3P%
— 73.2 FT%
Jrue Holiday playoff shooting splits with the Bucks:
— 41.1 FG%
— 28.9 3P%
— 67.3 FT% pic.twitter.com/1PRn67M4k2
It’s... a little hard to believe things have been that bad, but the numbers are the numbers. Eric Bledsoe left us last year. Long live Eric Bledsoe, it seems.
And yet, there’s part of me that was convinced that those raw shooting splits aren’t capturing the whole story. It couldn’t possibly be that bad, right?
Make or Miss (Mostly Miss) League
If you zoom in and simply evaluate what you’re seeing now versus what you remember from before, a couple of things jump out. First and foremost is the fact that Holiday keeps getting shots up in spite of his poor shooting splits. Much like Bledsoe, Holiday has been more adept at scoring the closer he gets to the hoop, though unlike Bledsoe he hasn’t abandoned the three point shot entirely. For example, everyone will recall game six against the Nets and the fact that Jrue just wouldn’t stop calling his own number for every three-point jumper he set his eyes on. Sure, he shot 1/10 from three that game, but he kept getting decent looks that simply wouldn’t go in.
Omitting the Miami series in the 2021 playoffs (because the Bucks mostly romped the Heat) and taking Eric’s 2019 playoffs (which with its 15 games and ECF stakes is our closest season to season comparison), the shot volume stands out. Over the course of Jrue’s 15 games, he’s taken an average of 17.6 shots a game compared to Eric’s 12.3 (and 6.6 3PAs v. 4.8 3PAs). True, somehow Jrue is shooting even worse from the floor over those 15 than Eric managed, but there’s a value to keeping one of your better players involved on offense rather than shunted aside.
Another aspect to take in when comparing the guards are their physical differences. Eric, short, stocky, and willing to throw his shoulder into a defender, relied on a good bit more strength to simply clear enough space so as to get a shot off inside (and for much of his time in Milwaukee, he was quite adept at scoring once there, shooting 71.3% within 3 feet of the basket). Holiday, taller and with longer arms, still uses strength to power slighter defenders out of his way, but there is more craft to his attempts once he steps inside the three-point line. Just watch these game two highlights from Thursday:
This package omits all his misses, but if you find clips of said misses you’ll note that a lot of his attempts follow-on after he uses his length to maneuver through paint defenses. A game that relies on craft over brute force will hold up over the long haul, yet it makes the misses that much more annoying for being so close and failing to drop.
What makes this truly bad stretch of shooting from Jrue frustrating is the fact that he’s seeing such a terrible drop off no matter the space he creates against defenders. Compare his percentages with defenders at various distances from him and his overall shot chart in the regular season v. the playoffs:
I mean, that’s literally a collapse in percentages across every category even while he has upped his raw attempt volume. And he’s actually getting better shots, too! Fewer shots with defenders right on top of him, fewer with them tightly covering him, all going to an increase in open shots. You’ll be not at all surprised to learn that the same holds true regardless of what ideal shot type he gets. Pull-up threes? They’re down. Wide open or simply open threes? They’re down. His shooting splits at any distance away from the hoop? Down down down.
Credit to Phoenix, too: They’ve pushed the “very tight” and “tight” coverage percentages on Jrue’s shots way up in the two games played so far.
Sigh. If it’s a make or miss league, Jrue is doing a lot of the latter at exactly the wrong time.
Redeeming Qualities, Anyone?
Okay, so the shooting flat out sucks and the explanations for it escape me. If you’ve got theories (is he working harder now that the minute load has been upped? Too much effort expended on defense robbing the offensive craft its oomph? Is he just bad right now?) I’d love to hear them.
I don’t want to continue this Finals thinking Jrue is a write-off, though, and I think it’d be helpful to emphasize all the ways in which he has been a positive impact on the team.
His assist numbers, both raw and as a percentage of the team’s overall point creation, have taken a huge step forward in the playoffs. The 6.1 APG he had during the regular season was already higher than Eric’s equivalent, and Jrue has pushed that up to 8.4 APG in the 19 games played so far this run (and his AST% jumped from 26.3 to 31.0 as well). All the while his raw turnover number has barely edged up and his TOV% actually decreased when the postseason began. Part of what was so valuable about Jrue was his ability to keep his head up even when moving towards the basket. Sometimes he’d have a defender on a string, manipulate the other team, and then hit a teammate with a good pass. Sometimes he’s divebombing the paint and makes the quick read to kick out or dump the ball off to the man waiting in the famed Dunker Spot. With defenses tightening up, that he’s able to bail out of a drive and create offense for others is a clear difference from Bledsoe. And, I’m happy to say, those assist/turnover trends have held up so far in the Finals.
Equally, we have to keep in mind that his physical tools are one of the keys to allowing Milwaukee to try and maintain some defensive flexibility. Without Jrue, there isn’t a ready switch defense for the Bucks to throw at an opponent. The ability for him to pair up with PJ Tucker has been critical in containing opposing ball-handlers at the point of attack, especially in trying to defuse pick-and-roll sets. The two aren’t physical copies, but they resemble one another enough that with the right communication they can generally bottle up and halt an attack before it gains too much momentum.
And as I said at the top, he’s putting shots up. When you’re the third best player on the team, you cannot fade. Just the threat of your attacking forces a defense to remain at least somewhat honest in throwing some pressure your way. We’ve seen him go ice ice ice cold from the floor in the most important games only to break through when it matters most like during the emotional rollercoaster game seven against Brooklyn.
So What The Hell Do We Do?
I’ll level with you guys: Things look bleak no matter how you slice it. In the 15 games since the start of the Nets series, he’s actually been a net negative when on the court (at -0.1 v. a +0.8 when he isn’t on the floor, but still).
Yet at the end of the day, it appears how Holiday goes ultimately sets the bar for where Milwaukee goes. Khris Middleton is our streaky shooter, and he’s surely been that, but the role he fulfills within this team on both ends is designed to account for that. With Jrue, the responsibilities increase significantly even if he isn’t our go-to scorer. If he can score and orchestrate, the team can sing. If he misses gimmes and makes mistakes on the defensive end following the point of attack, the team is buried deep in a trench.
At this point, there isn’t a whole bunch different we can do other than put Holiday into positions where he can succeed. Part of that may include working extra hard to get him those better interior shots early in games three and four with the crowd at his back. Part of it may simply be reducing the number of non-starting-lineup minutes and pushing as many of the chips on the most talented players as possible (Milwaukee still has a +19.6 net rating with the Holiday, Middleton, Tucker, Antetokounmpo, and Lopez starting five thanks mostly to Giannis). Part of that is simply communicating better and making some tweaks to the defense while praying Phoenix cools off on contested jumpers.
The key is to not disengage the guy this deep into the process. His only choice is to keep trying to get into a rhythm while continuing to work at attacking the basket (by far his best shot type). True, there should be some recognition of when he’s doing more harm than good and thus a push to get Khris more possessions, but he can’t become a non-entity.
So, is Jrue Bledsoe a real thing? The numbers say: Maybe. But the style, the presence, and the abilities are of such a quality that he can be utterly cold and still find a way to help the team. Jrue Holiday isn’t a lost cause, but time is ticking. For all our sakes, I hope he can rise above the adversity with the season on the line.