Jrue Holiday thrives in new role coming off New Orleans bench

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

SALT LAKE CITY – Right around the time he began to break a sweat and determine how to best operate within the context of a game, Jrue Holiday would hear the arena’s buzzer, then be beckoned to the sideline, subbed out for a teammate. Sometimes, Holiday would then be forced to sit on the bench for more than an hour of real time, before being allowed back on the floor. It was a far from ideal situation for any player, but unavoidable for the 6-foot-4 guard, whose playing time has been monitored closely by the New Orleans Pelicans due to a past leg injury. The minute restriction is a safeguard to avoid a repeat of Holiday’s two previous short-circuited seasons, but it also wreaked havoc on his ability to find any rhythm on the floor.

The solution? Instead of widely splitting his stints on the court, Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry decided to bring the 2013 NBA All-Star off the bench. Holiday responded immediately by looking like a much different player than the one who started in each of his initial 14 appearances this season. Over five games since Dec. 4 as a high-scoring substitute, the third-year Pelican is averaging 16.0 points, highlighted by 13, 19- and 15-point performances in wins over Cleveland, Washington and Utah. Perhaps the best evidence that the change was a wise one comes from examining Holiday’s offensive efficiency: He shot just 40.4 percent as a starter, but has been scorching as a reserve (52.8 percent from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range).

“He’s been playing great,” Pelicans forward Alonzo Gee said after Wednesday’s 104-94 win at Utah. “We need him to score, we need him to defend. He’s been making big plays and big shots.”

“He’s that spark off the bench with Ryan (Anderson),” forward Anthony Davis said. “Jrue doesn’t mind coming off the bench; he just wants to win. He’ll do whatever it takes to win. That’s a big sacrifice for a guy who’s been starting his whole career. He’s a team player. He comes up big every night.”

Holiday describes the change in role as one that more easily allows him to get into the flow of games. Instead of having his minutes separated by sometimes-lengthy breaks, he’s able to stay on the floor for more extended stretches.

“With the restrictions, now I get to play more minutes at a time, so that helps me get into a rhythm,” the seventh-year NBA veteran said. “It really is just a rhythm thing. When I first was starting and playing those first five minutes, I would feel like I was just about to heat up, or feel out the game (but then had to be taken out).”

Holiday – who is expected to be clear of any playing-time restrictions in about two weeks – also has more freedom to look for his own shot as a reserve, often paired with guard Norris Cole. As a starter, Holiday would frequently be on the floor with New Orleans’ third- and fourth-leading scorers, Eric Gordon (15.8 ppg) and Tyreke Evans (15.4 ppg).

“Part of it is who I’m playing with,” Holiday said of adjusting so quickly to a reserve role. “When I come off the bench, I’m more of a scorer, instead of trying to facilitate for everybody. When you have Norris and Ish (Smith) coming in, they can get the ball and look up for me. They’re really easy to play off of. (As a starter), it was about me trying to get everybody the ball where they want it. When you’re out there with Tyreke and Eric, they’re two scorers, so I might have to spot up (off the ball), play defense – I’m going to play defense regardless – and just knock down an open shot. In the position I’m in now, I can really just go (and play).”

Many NBA coaches point out that players should be far less concerned with who starts a game than who finishes it. For Holiday, a perfect illustration of that came Wednesday, when even though he wasn’t in the starting five, he was on the floor for outcome-deciding fourth-quarter minutes. New Orleans and Utah were tied at 89 entering crunch time, but the Pelicans used a 13-3 run to take control. Holiday delivered a pivotal conventional three-point play and a back-breaking three-pointer to make it 102-92 with 1:35 left, sending Jazz fans streaming to the exits.

“I think I’ve been through enough experiences in my career that when Coach (Gentry) puts me in, I know what he wants me to do,” said Holiday, who was also a late-season sub in 2014-15 after missing three months due to his stress-reaction leg injury. “Having the experience and being able to come off the bench and do that helps. Because to me, it doesn’t matter if I start or come off the bench – as long as I’m in at the end of the game.”

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