MILWAUKEE -- The Sunday afternoon showdown between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns lost a little luster when it was announced that neither Giannis Antetokounmpo (quad) nor Kevin Durant (knee) would be suiting up. But despite their absences, the two teams still collaborated on a thriller, which the Bucks won, 104-101, to extend their winning streak to 14 games.
Jrue Holiday led the way for the Bucks on both ends of the floor. He came up with a clutch steal in the closing seconds to preserve the win, and finished with a game-high 33 points, four rebounds and five assists. The Bucks also got 22 points and 13 rebounds from Brook Lopez, while Jae Crowder stepped up with some big shots down the stretch against his former team.
The Suns are hopeful that this will be their final game without Durant, who is still working his way back from an MCL sprain. They were limited to just five points over the final five minutes, a problem that Durant's shotmaking likely would have solved. With the defeat, they are now in a dead heat with the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference.
Here are some key takeaways from the 2021 NBA Finals rematch:
Holiday haunts Booker again
In the closing seconds of Game 5 of the 2021 NBA Finals, the Bucks were clinging to a one-point lead when Devin Booker drove into the paint and got stripped by Jrue Holiday. On the ensuing fastbreak, Holiday threw a ridiculous lob to Giannis Antetokounmpo, which sealed the game and set the platform for the Bucks to win the title a few days later in Game 6.
The stakes weren't quite as high on Sunday, but the deciding play was eerily similar. With the Suns trailing by two and 24.8 seconds remaining, Booker tried to go one-on-one against Holiday and was stripped, which set up the game-sealing free throws for the Bucks.
"Shot the screen, stayed with Book, he went left once, thought I did a good job keeping him at bay," Holiday said. "Then he went left again and made a good move, cause I felt like I was beat. But he kinda exposed the ball and I went for a steal and ended up getting a hand on it and Brook ended up with it."
Holiday made the All-Star Game this season for the first time since 2013, in large part because of his work on the defensive end. Time and again, he makes game-changing and game-winning plays on that side of the ball because of his skill and determination.
"That's just what he does," Khris Middleton said. "He's one of the best on-ball defenders, off-ball defenders, and he proves it every time. He loves that challenge, he takes that challenge personally, and he came up with a huge play at a crucial time in the game once again."
Crowder shows why the Bucks acquired him
Jae Crowder's sabbatical finally came to an end at the trade deadline, as the Bucks acquired him from the Suns as part of a four-team trade. The veteran forward was a target for a number of contenders due to his size and versatility on the defensive end, and ability to knock down open 3s. Milwaukee won the sweepstakes, and Sunday's game showed why they were eager to do so.
"He hit the two huge corner 3s," Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. "You need spacing, you need guys to make shots, you need guys to guard and he was doing both. That was a big part of us erasing the eight-point lead, were his two corner 3s. He's been what we expect from Jae, which is impressive to do, just to come in his second game, both games he looks like the Jae Crowder we've been competing against. It's nice to have him on your side."
Clutch Crowder!! 👌 pic.twitter.com/JCRPOFfxSL— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 26, 2023
Crowder only finished with seven points, three rebounds and two assists, but while that line may not jump off the page, his play was vital for the Bucks down the stretch. As Budenholzer noted, he hit back-to-back 3s from the corner late in the fourth to help the Bucks turn around an eight-point deficit. His defense was also a big factor in the Bucks holding the Suns to just five points in the final four minutes.
On a personal level, you could tell this game meant a lot to Crowder from the way he was reacting on the floor. Postgame, he admitted that this was one he wanted against his former team.
"I just wanted to get the win," Crowder said. "I didn't care how I played individually. I told the guys that. I just wanted to get the win. I felt like it was a pivotal win, just for my mental moving forward."
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Bucks' winning streak hits 14
The Bucks started the season 9-0, but then played around .500 ball for the next few months as they dealt with injuries and the grind of the regular season. Now, as they prepare for the stretch run, they're rounding into form.
On either side of the All-Star break, they've won 14 games in a row, which is the longest winning streak by any team in the league this season, and the fifth-longest streak in franchise history. As a result, they've climbed to within half a game of the Boston Celtics for the best record in the league.
"In the grand scheme of things, just the winning streak, no [it doesn't matter]," Khris Middleton said. "But winning games, yes. That's what it's all about, winning. Just putting ourselves in the best position we can be come playoff time and try to play our best basketball come playoff time. I don't think we're too excited about how long we're on this winning streak, but we're excited about each win every night. That's what it's all about."