The Bucks didn’t just win the title—the franchise’s first in 50 years—last season. They also supplied two all-time memorable playoff moments along the way, via Giannis Antetokounmpo’s game-saving block against Deandre Ayton in Game 4 of the NBA Finals …
… and, one game later, Jrue Holiday’s steal turned alley-oop lob to Giannis with the 2-2 series on the line.
For Bucks fans, those moments will forever resonate as the peak plays of a thrilling championship run. And for neutral hoops fans, they will live just as long in highlight reels. Both plays, crucially, started as defensive feats of wonder.
The 2021-22 Bucks haven’t matched last year’s trophy yet. In fact, they’re not even halfway there, even after a 110-107 victory in Boston on Wednesday that brought them a win away from the conference finals. But at the culmination of an improbable comeback in Game 5, which saw the Bucks erase a double-digit fourth-quarter deficit to stun the TD Garden crowd, Milwaukee at the very least added another all-time defensive highlight to its ledger.
Let’s set the scene for Holiday’s latest masterpiece. Game 5 is the hinge point in many 2-2 series; historically, the team that’s won this game in this scenario has gone on to win the series 82 percent of the time. And for most of Wednesday night, the Celtics looked as if they were going to secure that advantage: They led by seven at halftime, 14 early in the fourth, and six after a thunderous Al Horford dunk with just two minutes remaining. With their second-leading scorer, Khris Middleton, still sidelined, the Bucks just didn’t look like they had the offensive juice to keep pace with a deeper Celtics squad.
But during a scramble following an offensive rebound, Antetokounmpo—who’d made just four of 29 3-point attempts in the playoffs heading into Wednesday—nailed a 3. Then Holiday matched him shortly after and tied the score. With the Bucks down by one after the teams exchanged free throws, Bobby Portis rebounded a missed Giannis freebie and rattled in a putback with 11.4 seconds left to give Milwaukee its first lead since early in the second quarter.
The Celtics should have stolen back the lead on their next possession. Marcus Smart gained a step on Pat Connaughton and drove to the basket, using his body as a shield to rise up for a potential game-winning layup.
There was only one problem with that plan. Holiday, playing help defense off of Jaylen Brown, flew in from behind Smart and snatched the ball at its apex—not just blocking the shot, but taking it entirely out of Smart’s hands into his own. Then for good measure, he tiptoed along the baseline and threw the ball off Smart and out of bounds to retain possession for Milwaukee.
WHAT A BLOCK BY JRUE HOLIDAY.— NBA (@NBA) May 12, 2022
AND HE EARNS THE POSSESSION
6.6 left on TNT pic.twitter.com/zombWL9ipA
All of that action and reaction happened in about five seconds of real time. Watch it. Watch it all. And then watch it about 15 more times with your jaw hanging open.
By itself, the block represents an incredible highlight, a blend of savvy intelligence and explosive athleticism. Then factor in the context that this play came under immense pressure between two of the league’s leading title contenders. Then note that Holiday, who has an argument as the NBA’s best defensive guard, wrecked a potential game-winner from Smart, who actually won the 2021-22 Defensive Player of the Year award. And finally, consider what happened soon after Holiday’s block, because with the Celtics down three after a pair of Milwaukee free throws, Holiday plucked the ball from Smart again, sealing the victory with an open-court steal.
Add together all those elements of Holiday’s terrific block, and it has to join the pantheon of legendary Bucks highlights. It’s so stupendous that it renders the other outrageous factors in Milwaukee’s comeback win—like the reigning Finals MVP scoring 40 points and ending the game with blood literally streaming down his face—mere secondary story lines. It’s the Bucks’ third breathtaking, game-winning, series-swinging defensive stand in the playoffs since last July.
Milwaukee still might not win this series, let alone advance far enough to repeat as champs. Middleton is still hurt, and the Celtics have already rebounded from losses to even this series twice. Yet on a stage defined by big moments, the Bucks have claimed another eternal highlight.
Here, watch it again. On every replay, Smart looks like he’s going to score to regain the lead—and the massive series advantage—for Boston. And every time, Holiday calmly steps in and seizes total control.