Jrue Holiday rips the ball away from Portland's Evan Turner

Led by Jrue Holiday, defense was foundation of Pelicans Game 1 road win

by Jim Eichenhofer

PORTLAND – As Jrue Holiday began to make the 10-second walk from the Moda Center visiting locker room to the podium Saturday to address the media, a few New Orleans teammates kept repeating the same two words to the shooting guard: “First team. First team. First team.”

The message? Holiday deserves to be on the NBA’s All-Defensive first team, after he’s repeatedly come through in 2017-18 with game-changing plays at that end of the floor. While Alvin Gentry and his players have consistently reiterated the idea that Holiday deserves the highest possible recognition for his work on defense, it might be easier to just send out a videotape of crunch time from Saturday’s 97-95, Game 1 victory over Portland.

Although he’ll only receive statistical credit for one of them, Holiday managed to squeeze in three critical defensive plays in the final 16 seconds, including badgering Damian Lillard enough to force Lillard to come up well short on an awkward floater; tipping the ball away from a cutting Meyers Leonard to prevent a potential easy layup; then swatting Pat Connaughton’s right-handed layup attempt. The second of Holiday’s two blocks Saturday kept New Orleans in front 95-92, which led to Anthony Davis’ game-sealing free throws with 4.9 ticks left.

“I don’t know many guys who can get a stop on Dame (Lillard) one-on-one at the top of the key, in an isolation,” Rajon Rondo said of that duel, with the Pelicans ahead only 93-92. “He’s definitely a great defender and we’re very fortunate to have him on our team. He wants the challenge and is one of the best at it, (defending) in iso.”

“I have a lot of respect for his game,” Portland’s Terry Stotts said after his club was held to 37.8 percent shooting from the field. “He had what I would say is a typical game for him. He can get to the basket, has good length, he defends. I thought he had an excellent all-around game.”

Gentry specifically praised Holiday’s block of Connaughton, a play in which Holiday was initially screened by the Portland reserve, who then wheeled toward the rim and perhaps thought he had a clear opening for two points. Holiday instead swatted the layup off the backboard, leading to Davis seizing a critical rebound after a scramble.

“It’s funny because (for) the last clip on the (pregame video) edit for the guys, we always put a clip on there that says ‘game-winning plays’ and actually it was Jrue blocking a shot in the Portland game,” Gentry said, referencing Holiday’s high-degree-of-difficulty rejection of Connaughton on March 27 in the Smoothie King Center. “Same guy, almost the exact same area (of the floor) and he came up with another block.”

Portland still managed to pull out a narrow road win March 27 despite Holiday’s late-game defensive heroics – he also came up with a memorable chasedown block of Lillard – but this time the Trail Blazers couldn’t overcome a superb performance by him and the Pelicans overall defensively.

As was the case for much of the regular season, New Orleans somewhat contained the explosive Portland backcourt duo of Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who combined to score 37 points, but needed to launch 41 shots from the field to do so. They both started very slowly, not getting into any kind of rhythm until the second half.

A chunk of Portland’s 61 total misses came from shots that were blocked, as New Orleans piled up 12 as a team, a number the Pelicans exceeded only twice during the entire 82-game regular season. In addition to Holiday’s two blocks, Davis and Nikola Mirotic each had four, while subs Ian Clark and Cheick Diallo netted one apiece, the latter a resounding swat of Lillard in the paint.

“We made big plays at both ends to seal this game,” said Clark, who drained a wing trey off a broken play with 2:28 left, giving New Orleans momentary relief and a 93-87 edge. “But Jrue’s defense at the end of the game – the block off the backboard, getting a steal, him staying in front of Dame and not fouling, those were all huge plays for us.”

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