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New Orleans’s Breakout Star Was Always There

In a series with MVP candidates like Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard, or even a scorer like C.J. McCollum, Jrue Holiday wasn’t the most likely player to have the biggest impact on the first-round series between the Pelicans and Blazers. Yet that’s what is happening so far, and the New Orleans guard — who has put the Pelicans up 2-0 in the best-of-seven series with clutch play after clutch play — is on the cusp of giving Blazers fans the sorts of nightmares they haven’t had since the Greg Oden era.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of Holiday’s performance, though, is how many of the little, often unnoticeable, things he’s done to help seal each victory. A handful of plays in these two games have shown just how underrated the 27-year-old has been at times during his career, one in which many of his best attributes haven’t always been captured by traditional box-score statistics.

Take a look at this reel of eight plays from the first two games of the series. Each is an example of Holiday doing something to earn an extra possession for his team while taking one away from his opponent. Also take note of the time of some of these plays: Half occur in the fourth quarter, when the stakes are highest.

So far, Holiday has had a hand in basically every facet of this series, which would mark the franchise’s first playoff-round victory since 2008, when it had Chris Paul and was still named the Hornets. Holiday is executing a scary two-man game with Davis, hitting nail-in-the-coffin jumpers and averaging 27 points and 5.5 assists. On the other end of the floor, he’s suffocating Lillard (0-for-4 for zero points and two turnovers when guarded by Holiday on Tuesday night) and McCollum. In fact, the team as a whole is shooting only 25 percent (6-of-24) for the series when guarded by Holiday, according to data from ESPN Stats & Information Group.

And then there are the momentum-busting 50-50 plays you just saw in the video above, in which he’s blocking shots and winning crucial loose balls. He’s single-handedly responsible for enough extra New Orleans possessions to potentially tip the scales of the series.

But here’s the thing: It shouldn’t be surprising that Holiday is doing all this. He’s basically been doing it all season, despite getting limited attention. Consider, for instance, that he finished the season tied for fifth in the NBA in loose balls recovered per game, with 1.6. He had active hands on defense, ranking seventh in the number of deflections per game he caused. And he blocked 64 shots this past season, more than anyone standing 6-foot-5 or shorter, according to Basketball-Reference.com. He ranks best in the NBA among starting guards in defensive efficiency in guarding pick-and-roll ball handlers, according to data from Synergy Sports Technology.

“He’s been really, really good the whole season, so this is not a surprise or anything,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry told reporters. “In my opinion, and I may be a little bit biased, but if you can tell me a better two-way player in the league right now — Kawhi’s not playing, and I understand that — I’m willing to listen. What we ask him to do, and the things that we ask him to do offensively? He was just great tonight.”

This isn’t to say that Holiday hasn’t ever gotten credit for his play. Once upon a time, he was an All-Star in Philadelphia, before The Process began. And he was certainly paid like a star last summer, when the Pelicans signed him to a five-year, $126 million contract. And he at least figures to be in the mix for an All-Defensive team honor this season.

Still, you aren’t alone if you weren’t familiar with his game until this past weekend. Injuries held him back for a couple of years after he needed two surgeries on his right leg. And he drew headlines and well-wishes throughout the league last season when he essentially took a leave of absence to be with his wife, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the midst of a pregnancy.

His offensive game took a bit of a backseat in the wake of the DeMarcus Cousins trade, which forced Holiday to figure out a way to adjust his game to fit with that of two post-oriented stars. (If he maintains this level of play, the Pelicans may be forced to make a difficult choice on whether to re-sign Cousins, the All-Star free-agent-to-be who ruptured his Achilles in the middle of the season.)

But in a number of ways, this was a breakout season for Holiday, who shined in his role offensively. He was a fantastic finisher around the basket, ranking inside the top-10 in restricted-area field-goal percentage among guards. Holiday was one of the more accurate midrange shooters in the NBA. And despite playing alongside Rajon Rondo, who sometimes plays so unselfishly and records so many dimes that it can disrupt the flow of the offense, Holiday — one of the NBA’s most prolific long passers — was often the man setting up Rondo first, finishing in the top 10 in the league in secondary assists. That would get him recognized in the NHL but goes unnoticed in the NBA.

So even though it has been a shock for many to see Holiday emerge before our very eyes, much of that may be because there weren’t enough eyes being directed on a player of his caliber in the first place.

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Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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