The most arduous moments an NBA basketball player typically experiences is on the court, where the pressure of competing amongst the games best takes center stage.
But for New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, his toughest moment will always be the fight he had off it. It started when Holiday relied on doctors and prayers during the treatment for his wife Lauren’s brain tumor during her pregnancy with their baby girl, Jrue Tyler, in 2016.
Nearly two years after the fact, Holiday reflects on that life-altering moment, admitting it had become time to focus on the deepest and most essential aspects of life.
“There was a lot of stress that I felt, a lot of pressure there,” Holiday said in a Yahoo Sports piece last month. “I think how my family dynamic is built, how my faith is built, we persevered through that. Always praying. My family praying, especially for my wife. My wife going through that — being pregnant and having a brain tumor — that was the point where I had to rely on other people.”
Holiday stepped away from basketball in September 2016 to spend time with Lauren, returning 12 games into last season, eventually inking a five-year, $126 million deal with the Pelicans in July.
However, in a season that’s involved an abundance of turmoil, Holiday has stepped up in a big way for New Orleans. Just a couple of weeks ago, Holiday capped off a banner 2018 regular season, averaging a career-high in points (19 per game), assists (6), rebounds (4.5), as well as shooting 49.4 percent from the field.
Moreover, he also supplemented the Pelicans after losing All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins for the season to a torn Achilles tendon in late January. Although fellow center, Anthony Davis, picked up the majority of the slack, averaging 30.2 points and 11.9 rebounds per game during the Pelicans final 33 outings, Holiday served as his co-star, scoring 20 points or more in 14 of New Orleans’ last 25 games, including three 30-point performances.
It’s Holiday whose accomplishments can serve as a barometer for this team’s success. Last month, Holiday reflected on finding chemistry amongst his teammates.
“We really felt like we lost a big piece in DeMarcus.” Holiday said. “We’ve had a lot of challenges over the years, dealing with injuries in previous years and this year with Solomon [Hill] and our rookie, Frank [Jackson]. We dealt with challenges just coming into the season with different players, and even though we finished the year well with DeMarcus last season, we had to figure ourselves out again.”
The Pelicans have not only figured themselves out, sweeping the West’s No. 3 seed Portland Trailblazers in the first round in convincing fashion but Holiday, too, has discovered an extra gear in these playoffs.
Holiday’s game has reached new heights in the postseason; mostly through unexpected areas
Let’s start off with this: all season, with or without Cousins, the Pelicans’ offense has been designed to pack it in the paint, scoring with its length on post-ups, dunks, and lobs. They’ve never been a heavy ISO team, in fact, New Orleans had just the 17th highest isolation frequency in the league this season, ranking in the 44th percentile by scoring 0.87 points per possession.
This has continued in the playoffs, in their four games, the Pelicans have the eight highest isolation frequency but rank in the 6th percentile by scoring 0.79 PPP. This changes when you account for Holiday, who has scored 0.94 PPP (52nd percentile) on 16 isolation possessions thus far.
Holiday has executed in a variety of ways, making plays happen when there’s nothing there. Throughout the Pelicans’ series with the Blazers, Holiday found paths to the rim, often using crossovers and a quick first step. You’ll see here that it takes just one immediate burst for him to beat his man off-the-dribble.
Portland made efforts defensively to negate Holiday’s drives at the rim, successfully switching everything to take away the Pelicans’ offense ability to screen effectively. As you’ll find out, there was no opening on the pick-and-roll, and it proved difficult to free up shooters when defenders were shifting so fluidly.
Once again, this didn’t stop Holiday from bullying his way to the rim against the likes of Pat Connaughton and Evan Turner – who was guarding him nearly at half-court on the second clip.
When dealt with an extra man on-the-ball, Holiday still thrived in the pick-and-roll
As effective as Holiday was in isolation possessions, he was even more lethal in the PnR game. This serves as an outlier for the entire Pelicans’ offense, as they had the 28th highest pick-and-roll frequency in the league this season, ranking in the 51st percentile by scoring 0.84 points per possession.
But, in the playoffs, the Pelicans have nearly doubled their PnR frequency, ranking in the 80th percentile by scoring 0.89 PPP. This has led to more shots at the rim for Holiday, who through four games, ranks in the 80th percentile, scoring 0.98 PPP on 12.6 PnR possessions per game.
It didn’t matter where Portland pressured Holiday – whether at the top of the key or on the wing – he was able to weave his way to the bucket with ease.
Holiday has always been a defensive stalwart: he’s just now proving it on the big stage
Holiday’s calling card throughout his career has been defense, where he’s shown the propensity to smother ball-handlers, intercept passes, and contest shots. The same has been true in the playoffs, as Holiday led a New Orleans defense that completely flummoxed likely All-NBA guard Damian Lillard in the first round: shooting 25/71 (35.2 percent) from the field and 9/30 (30 percent) from 3.
Holiday’s ability to move laterally posed problems for Lillard, forcing him to take difficult jumpers and make extra passes. In the first example, Holiday plays excellent on-ball defense, cutting off any room for Lillard to penetrate, forcing him to pass to a trailing C.J. McCollum, who hoists up a contested three as the shot clock expires.
In the next example, Holiday stays disciplined on the perimeter, blowing up a Lillard/Al-Farouq Aminu PnR. This once again forces Lillard to execute a pass that slows down Portland’s offense.
Lastly, it’s not just lateral quickness that’s made Holiday a prime defender in the playoffs so far. It’s also his adept closing speed. Similar to how a defensive back shuts off a receiver’s space to operate after the catch in football, Holiday has demonstrated this by closing out a shooter’s space to knock down a catch-and-shoot jumper.
Here, Holiday runs from the free-throw line, end-to-end, while fighting through a Jusuf Nurkic back-screen to deliver a weak-side block on Lillard.
Overlooked by some, downgraded by others, Holiday has proven to be the right fit for New Orleans. The Pelicans showed faith in Holiday’s ability as a two-way player and a perfect fit for the team that they were building. And so far, Holiday has delivered every way imaginable in these playoffs.
As New Orleans heads into their Game 1 matchup of the Western Conference Semifinals against the Golden State Warriors, Holiday’s journey is easy to marvel. One that’s come in waves — from his newborn and wife’s condition and changes across a roster facing pressure to win – that steered him to arguably his best pro year.
“I’m so lucky to be here and make it on the other side,” Holiday said. “As a man and as an athlete, you always feel you can handle things by yourself. You feel like, ‘I got to the league, I did it by myself.’ You thank and serve people along the way — but I put in the work. That was somewhat in my control. But my wife’s situation, it really wasn’t in my control. So to bounce back from that has been pretty cool, pretty special to me.”