BOSTON — Jrue Holiday’s feeling publicly about the startling trade that sent him to the Trail Blazers, and eventually the rival Celtics in September, hadn’t changed roughly two months later. He and his former Bucks teammates talked before Wednesday’s first meeting between the top two powers in the east, unaffected by the major shift at point guard in the rivalry and satisfied with their new standing on each side.
“I’m happy for him in the sense of, I want him to continue to compete for championships,” Connaughton told CLNS Media on Wednesday morning. “Obviously, being a kid who grew up in Boston, 10-year-old Pat would’ve loved Jrue as a Celtic. I think the city will really love what he does, not just on the court, but off the court and how he carries himself, how he plays the game, how he defends, things like that. You’ve got a great fan base here that I think will really take to him. Obviously, for us, it makes our job that much harder and we’re excited for the challenge. That’s the way that we operate.”
Holiday played for three seasons and won the 2021 championship, Milwaukee’s first in 50 years, alongside Connaughton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bobby Portis, Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton as the cornerstones of that run. The Bucks pivoted from that group toward Damian Lillard in the surprise September blockbuster after Antetokounmpo’s multiple interviews that cast uncertainty over his future with the team. Holiday expressed hope that he’d end his career with Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo extended following the trade.
Various suitors emerged for Holiday in the aftermath, and while the Bucks expressed happiness for Holiday that he landed on a contender, they likely preferred he wouldn’t have landed on their top rival in a corresponding chess move. Holiday listed Boston as his top destination, and the Celtics didn’t hesitate to meet Portland’s demand of 3-4 first round picks of value. They traded Malcolm Brogdon, two firsts and Robert Williams III, a difficult move Brad Stevens said he only would’ve done for a player like Holiday. Since, Holiday has averaged 12.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.0 blocks per game on 43.5% shooting through Boston’s 11-3 start.
“Jrue means a lot to our team, the city of Milwaukee and myself personally,” Lopez told CLNS Media. “I grew up playing against Jrue, he went to my older brother’s high school. We played each other a ton in high school and we’ve been connected pretty much ever since. He definitely holds a special place in my heart and I’m excited to see him tonight. We absolutely wouldn’t have a championship without him. He got us there … it was a great pickup by the Celtics. It wasn’t unexpected. That’s the caliber of a player he is, he’s a difference-maker … it’s been weird to see him in clips and film and stuff like that all season long. It’s bizarre. I love Jrue. I miss him. I only want the best for him. I’m excited to see him tonight. It’s going to be a lot of fun, it’s going to be a great matchup.”
The Bucks began their seismic offseason response to their first-round playoff exit, and second-round loss to Boston the year prior after taking a 3-2 lead, by firing championship head coach Mike Budenholzer. They hired a rookie head coach in Adrian Griffin, who adjusted the team’s defensive system in tandem with acclimating Lillard, which had disastrous results during the team’s 5-4 start. They’ve won five straight since, scoring over 128 points in each of their last four games with Lillard averaging 28.3 PPG on 44.1% shooting and Antetokounmpo scoring 40 and 42, respectively, over the last two games. Malik Beasley and Cam Payne joined the team as rotation guards. Middleton returned to the starting lineup after an injury-plagued preseason. Connaughton, Portis, second-year wing MarJon Beauchamp and former Celtic Jae Crowder have held down the bench.
Milwaukee still ranks 23rd in defense though, a contrast against their past success. Boston found a far more immediate and balanced success, third in defense and sixth, right behind the Bucks in fifth, offensively. Derrick White and Holiday hit the ground running as a two-way guard tandem. Jayson Tatum emerged atop the MVP race early and Kristaps Porziņģis changed the game as a rim protector and offensive outlet for Tatum and Jaylen Brown to target. Holiday, who flirted with a triple-double against Brooklyn earlier this month, brought a more subtle impact. One embodied by his role quarterbacking the defense, calling when Boston goes into press and zone looks, and meeting directly with Joe Mazzulla to discuss changes. A first in his career.
The two sides meet for the first time at 7:30 EST tonight in a potential east finals preview. Just another game for Holiday, whose wife Lauren penned a letter about the actual difficulty of the deal in the aftermath.
“I’m in a very good position to be where I want to be,” Jrue said on Wednesday. “Still happy to be here, none of that has ever changed. It was a good time. I won a championship, made some friends, made some family members and it’ll always have a piece of my heart. It’ll be fun to compete against them, obviously I know their game pretty be well. I was damn near there until the day before training camp. I feel like maybe knowing their tendencies and some of the things they want to do, obviously they’ve mixed in some different stuff … the personal side is kind of pushed to the side for the most part. I can’t say that about everybody … I think that (Milwaukee) got what they wanted. I can’t be mad at that. A warning would’ve been cool, but other than that, I’m in the best place that I can be to compete against them for the top team in the east and hopefully the top team in the league.”