Jrue Holiday surges into spotlight, helping to lead Pelicans to 10-game winning streak

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Due to a combination of injuries and non-playoff seasons, the vast majority of Jrue Holiday’s tenure in New Orleans has taken place outside the spotlight, with the often-undermanned Pelicans only reaching the postseason in 2015. True to form, even during that second-half run to those ’15 Western Conference playoffs, Holiday was sidelined, then only appeared in three games of a first-round sweep by Golden State.

Now in Year 5 of Holiday’s Crescent City career, things may finally be changing. After signing a lucrative free-agent contract last summer to return to New Orleans, Holiday has delivered his best season, helping to lead the Pelicans (38-26) to their most impressive stretch of basketball since 2011.

On Tuesday, when New Orleans pulled off a 121-116 road win over the Clippers, the 27-year-old stole the ball from Lou Williams in the final seconds, preserving a memorable victory. With TNT broadcasting the game to a national audience, it was a rare chance for basketball fans outside the Gulf South to see Holiday at his best. Those kind of late-game heroics have been commonplace lately, as New Orleans has reeled off 10 straight wins and dramatically changed its position in a heated West race.

“People are starting to recognize. Jrue should be first-team all-defense,” Pelicans point guard Rajon Rondo said, minutes after that clutch defensive play. “He checks the best player every night, (at positions) one through four. I’m glad he was able to get that big stop. It was pretty much the play of the night, in a national TV game. Hopefully he starts getting the credit, because he’s one of the only guys in this league who does play both sides of the ball. You can probably name them with one hand – Paul George, and the list drops from there. Jrue does it every night.”

Holiday has combined elite defensive play with one of the finest offensive stretches for him as a pro. During New Orleans’ month-long winning streak, he’s averaged 24.9 points, with efficiency through the roof (52.1 field goal percentage, 42.9 from three-point range).

“He’s been playing well,” said Pelicans forward Anthony Davis, who’s also on a career-best tear. “Shooting a high percentage, averaging around (25) points, (nine) assists, (five) rebounds, he’s playing well. He’s been carrying us in a lot of games where we have a lot of lulls, and he just takes over. When he’s playing like this, it’s definitely very tough for teams to beat us.”

As complimentary of Holiday as Rondo is, Holiday returns the favor to his fellow starting guard, saying that the 12-year veteran has been instrumental in him making a big step forward this season. The addition of Rondo allows Holiday to attack defenses off the ball, with Rondo directing the offense.

“He’s had a really big part,” Holiday said. “Especially taking the load from the point-guard position. I mean, that’s what he does – he’s going to go down as one of the best point guards. It gives me a little bit different dynamic, to be able to be a little bit selfish at times, to look for my shot a little more. Instead of me handling the ball more and having to figure out coming down and trying to get other people shots. Also, the way that he talks on the court and the way he talks off the court, being a leader who instills confidence in everyone, especially myself.”

Perhaps as much as anything, what’s also helped Holiday is that he’s been in the lineup since Day 1 of this season. His first three seasons with New Orleans were interrupted to varying degrees by injuries; he got a well-documented late start to 2016-17 for family reasons.

“This is really my first full season playing past January, and starting the season on time,” he said. “I do think to be able to go through that process of preseason, midseason and hopefully postseason, I think it’s been pretty helpful for my career.”

Holiday has always had a reputation as a top on-ball defender, but it’s shown up more often this season than ever. He’s been one key to New Orleans significantly improving at the defensive end, after ranking in the bottom 10 of the NBA as a team during the first half of the campaign. His theft of Williams with Tuesday’s game on the line was symbolic of how valuable he’s been at that end of the floor.

“He’s one of the best two-way guards in the league and maybe the best guard defender in the league,” said Pelicans forward Solomon Hill, who’s known Holiday for years as a fellow Los Angeles-area native. “I’m very happy to see how he’s playing. He’s a dangerous guy, and one of the biggest complements to how (Davis) is playing. If those two aren’t on the same page, I don’t think we’d find the success we’ve found.”

Speaking of success, New Orleans has moved into contention for homecourt advantage in the first round of the West playoffs, something the franchise has not achieved in 10 years. Just qualifying for the postseason was a primary goal after sitting out late-April basketball for the past two seasons, but the Pelicans’ recent surge has them thinking of loftier goals. Rondo, no stranger to deep playoff runs and the TV and media exposure that comes with them, believes basketball fans will get to know a lot more about Holiday if New Orleans can continue to win at its current rate.

“If he’s not the best two-way player in our game (he’s one of the best),” Rondo said. “He doesn’t get a lot of credit for it, but every night he’s been checking (Harrison) Barnes, (Russell) Westbrook, Ben Simmons. People are starting to see what he can do because of this winning streak, but he’s been doing it his whole career. It will be fun to watch when hopefully we get in the playoffs, then he’ll really be able to put his talent on display.”