In the midst of the 2023-24 NBA season, comprehensive analysis unveils notable league narratives each week, prompting discussions about whether they are rooted primarily in reality or conjecture. This week’s scrutiny revolves around the trade verdict of Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday with an emphasis on the Milwaukee Bucks.
During a match on Thanksgiving eve, taking place between the top contenders of the Eastern Conference, Celtics guard Jrue Holiday thwarted the offensive moves of his ex-teammate from the Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo. This pivotal defensive moment fuelled an explosive 10-0 run, setting the stage for the Celtics.
The stark contrast since their last encounter was instantly evident, with the developments seemingly favoring Boston over Milwaukee.
However, it’s integral to concede that it’s relatively early stages. With only a single game as data, the Bucks also suffered from the absence of forward Jae Crowder, drastically restraining their game. Furthermore, this is just 15 games into the tenure of first-time head coach Adrian Griffin. Nevertheless, the palpable lack of equivalent talent was quite jarring.
The Celtics maintained their leading position throughout the match, extending their advantage to 20 points in both halves and consistently maintaining a double-digit lead. The tide turned when the Bucks initiated a late 12-2 run, temporarily minimizing the discrepancy to a solitary possession inside the final minute. The denouement of the match was a last-minute, three-pointer executed by Malik Beasley of the Bucks, fixing the final score at 119-116.
Emerging from the intense match, the Bucks were slightly comforted by their final rally. Multiple ‘what ifs’ circulated, each pointing to missed chances and initial setbacks – the 10-0 deficit, lost opportunities near the rim, exemplary shooting from Boston, and Antetokounmpo’s subpar performance. Nevertheless, these are implicit parts of the game.
The reality, however, remains unaltered – the Celtics, thanks to Holiday and Derrick White, possess the strongest defensive backcourt in the NBA. Meanwhile, the Bucks, despite having Lillard and Beasley, do not align with this top-tier defense league-wide.
In a surprising trade deal in late September, the Bucks exchanged Holiday, Grayson Allen and three future first-round draft picks for Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers. This sparked new projections, with many predicting the Bucks as the top contenders for the NBA championship. Shortly after that, the Trail Blazers transferred Holiday to the Celtics, launching them back to their prior favourite status.
Distinctively contrasted, the Bucks currently reside at 22nd spot in the league’s defensive rating–amassing an average of 115.6 points per 100 possessions. This is a significant slide from their previous top-five rank. They revamped their defense under Griffin’s guidance, just a few games into the season, transitioning back to the traditional drop-coverage scheme enabling Lopez to guard the rim. The revamped defense has shown signs of marginal improvement. Despite achieving a defensive rating of 113.4 during their recent five-match winning streak, it’s noteworthy that four out of their five victories were against comparatively weaker offenses.
The Celtics, however, are a formidable opponent. They rattled the bucks with a shooting statistic of 52.4% from the field and 40.5% from beyond the arc, including a near perfect score near the rim and full marks for corner threes, generating impressive points for limited shots.
Despite the loss, Lillard delivered as expected for the Bucks with a tally of 27 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Holiday, on the other hand, delivered a not-so-impressive stat line for the Celtics with just five points, eight rebounds, and only one assist against two turnovers.
This doesn’t boil down to mere statistics; the analysis extends to the difference in added value from Holiday to Lillard for the Bucks as compared to the advantage gained by Boston in Holiday’s role transition from Malcolm Brogdon. This pivot could potentially carry significant implications in the inevitable playoff encounters between these teams.
Accounting for the unparalleled prowess of Lillard and Antetokounmpo, the possibility of the Bucks beating any team cannot be dismissed. However, perceivable voids also exist, and in a seven-game series, these small margins can become decisive. The diluted Bucks’ defense dealing with Celtics’ improved offense, packed with versatile players, presents a considerable challenge for Milwaukee.
Consequently, the assumption that the Damian Lillard – Jrue Holiday trade made the Bucks superior falls under the category of fiction. Unwittingly, the trade maneuver has bolstered the Celtics, pitching them into a stronger position than the Bucks in this NBA season.