The first-round series between the Pelicans and Trail Blazers has been a good reminder that the postseason is its own self-contained universe. Force two teams to play each other in a best-of-seven series and the preexisting narratives that shape a team’s journey against 29 teams across 82 games suddenly vanish. Dame Time, it turns out, isn’t a flat circle, but a floating construct of unmet expectations. Anthony Davis, who could finish second in MVP voting this season, might wind up being the third-most noteworthy player on his own team because Playoff Rondo is real and Jrue Holiday has emerged as the most imposing two-way presence in the NBA.
The higher seed in each matchup tends to be the lens through which we view the series as a whole, as though the victors had already prewritten history and we’re all just here to fact-check for discrepancies. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were expected to dictate the outcome by virtue of spearheading one of the most impressive regular seasons in recent Blazers history. Instead, they’ve been silenced by a backcourt that, to this day, barely makes sense. In a series that has been completely inverted, perhaps that makes perfect sense.
Holiday transitioned to the wing to accommodate Rajon Rondo over the offseason. It seemed counterintuitive: New Orleans had just awarded Holiday, its point guard, a five-year contract worth upwards of $132 million—why invest that much money in a lead ball handler only to strip him of the ball? But, as has been the case his entire career, Holiday carried on with grace. According to Basketball-Reference’s play-by-play estimates, Holiday spent 99 percent of his time at either shooting guard or small forward this season. He was the ball handler in the pick-and-roll for only 29.1 percent of his possessions this season compared to 50.7 percent last season. He isolated more and took more shots spotting up. He changed his style of play the way the players around him dictated; before DeMarcus Cousins went down with a season-ending Achilles tear, Boogie was given free rein to create off the dribble from the perimeter—Holiday, once a point guard, was asked to clear out and space the floor for a steamrolling 6-foot-11 center. Yet, it was a seamless transition, producing the best scoring season of Holiday’s career.
His contract may be steep, but that’s the asking price for players with Holiday’s level of versatility. He has been everything and anything the Pelicans have asked out of a perimeter player. He went from being a caretaker point guard in his four years in Philadelphia to a 3-and-D wing in his fifth season in New Orleans. What we’re seeing in the playoffs isn’t a blip somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, it’s the grand sum of Holiday’s skills.
Holiday’s game-saving block on Pat Connaughton in Game 1 and 33 points in Game 2 are the searchlights that have sent his national star rising, but it’s been his defense on Lillard that has been most important for the Pelicans’ success. Lillard was defended by Holiday on 127 possessions over four regular-season games (which the teams split, 2-2); after two playoff games, he’s already faced Holiday for 74 possessions. It’s been nightmarish for the MVP candidate: According to matchup data courtesy of Second Spectrum, Lillard has shot 2-for-18 from the field (11.1 percent) with Holiday as his primary defender. Against literally every other Pelican combined, he’s shooting 11-for-23 (47.8 percent). Holiday’s recent success against Lillard is simply an extension of what he’s done all season:
Jrue Holiday has been the ball-handler defender on pick-and-rolls 1,846 times this season - 2nd-most in the NBA. On those chances, Holiday allows 0.84 Pts/chance, 2nd among the 48 other players who have defended at least 1,000 such chances.— Second Spectrum (@SecondSpectrum) April 15, 2018
But defense is never just one person’s job. Lillard, who led the league in pick-and-roll possessions as a ball handler and had a scoring efficiency in the 94th percentile, has been stymied by the Pelicans’ aggressive doubling every time he involves himself in a screen. Dame hasn’t dealt with it well:
The Pelicans have created an almost impossible scenario for the Blazers, who rely almost exclusively on Lillard’s ability to break down a defense. New Orleans can live with McCollum having a good shooting night, but they’ve remained steadfast in denying Lillard every time he has the ball. Lillard has done a lot of self-talk during postgame interviews, and while there were a number of shots that Lillard missed in Game 2, self-actualization can’t always solve a systemic problem. The inherent utility of a pick-and-roll is to briefly create a two-on-one mismatch, but both Holiday and Davis are uniquely built as PNR busters. Holiday has the size and elusiveness to glide around screens and keep his body attached to his man, and Davis has the length and hypermobility to track and deter both offensive players. The pick-and-roll made up nearly half of Lillard’s possessions in the regular season; it made up exactly a third of McCollum’s. What happens when a team’s entire offensive makeup is blotted out? The Pelicans have effectively locked the Blazers in purgatory until further notice.
This has been Holiday’s coming-out party, but he’s had to share the spotlight with the return of a familiar presence. Watching Rondo in his element is as visceral as it is academic. The theory of Playoff Rondo is presented as an inexplicable phenomenon, but its properties are firmly rooted in mathematics.
With 8:01 remaining in the third quarter of Game 2, Lillard raised his right arm to call a play. Rondo, who was guarding C.J. McCollum, the ball handler, glanced over to catch the signal, then brought his attention back to his assignment. He waited until Lillard was done, then turned his head toward his teammates, flashing two fingers in the air. He motioned Holiday to take the switch onto McCollum on what appeared to be a screen-and-roll action between C.J. and Ed Davis. Rondo was dragged out of the play by Evan Turner, but he’d already mapped out the rest of the sequence.
Holiday slipped around Davis’s screen, then tagged McCollum to disrupt his tempo. That was just enough for him to mistime his pocket pass to Ed Davis, who tried to fling the ball on the short roll to Al-Farouq Aminu for what was supposed to be an open 3. But he’s met at the apex by Anthony Davis, who deflected the pass. As the ball sailed out of bounds, Rondo tied a bow on the defensive sequence by ensuring that the ball was last touched by Aminu.
In essence, Rondo conducted a counter that leveraged the talents of his two All-Defensive-team-caliber teammates, getting the ball out of a star scorer’s hands and forcing the Blazers’ worst playmaker on the floor to make a decision in traffic. Of course, Holiday and Davis are so good at the point of attack and from the back line, respectively, that the possession might’ve played out identically if Rondo hadn’t broadcast his reconnaissance. But even if there are a number of ways to arrive at the same conclusion, in the playoffs, it might be wisest to follow Rondo’s lead. “If you’re gonna have him on your team you’ve got to believe in him enough to understand he’s gonna put guys in the right situation,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said after Game 1. “Sometimes when you’re out on the floor you even have a better feel than the coach.”
Teams are locked inside a best-of-seven cage in the postseason. Familiarity breeds contempt, but it also produces a whole lot of data. The first team to notice and capitalize on the patterns and tendencies that emerge has the upper hand. For all his faults (of which there are many), there might not be a player quicker on the uptake than Rondo. After their Game 2 victory in Portland, the Pelicans became only the seventh team since 2003, when the NBA went to a best-of-seven format in the first round, to win the first two games on the road. The most recent team to take the first two prior to these Pels was last year’s Bulls, a squad that rode Rondo’s institutional knowledge of the Celtics’ system until a fractured thumb forced both Rondo and Chicago out of the series. It’s looking less and less like a coincidence.
When Holiday was asked in a TNT postgame interview about what it’s like to play with Playoff Rondo, Jrue was characteristically terse: “I’ve played against him, and it sucks.”
Rondo plays basketball as though it were a series of geometric proofs to be relayed to his teammates. Proofs present lines of logical reasoning on how a conclusion was arrived at. Rondo used to solve proofs in his sleep back in high school; that’s essentially what it looks like he’s doing in these playoffs. You’ll often find Rondo in the first half defending off the ball, his head on a swivel, always in position to help, but more importantly, always in position to read the progressions of an opponent’s play. He knows all of them—Rondo famously studies game tape religiously, a habit he picked up early as a teen. Davis mentioned to the media that Rondo had stayed up all night prior to Game 1 watching film, crediting him for diagnosing plays before the Blazers could even get into their sets, something the point guard has done his entire career. Rondo’s pattern recognition activates on a synaptic level, but therein lies the challenge of seeing the floor as a mathematician: How do you translate a singular vision so that your teammates can arrive at the same conclusion in real time? It’s a constant question with a different answer each time down the court.
But the most important question for the Pelicans moving forward—starting in Game 3 on Thursday night in New Orleans—is just how long they can keep this going. The Pelicans’ four most important players—Davis, Holiday, Rondo, and Nikola Mirotic—are all averaging no less than 38.5 minutes per game, and both games 1 and 2 have seen the final results determined by big scoring runs. The margins have been tighter than the overall schematics of the series indicate, but the Pelicans have the ultimate trump card: Anthony Davis hasn’t yet put together the kind of game-breaking performance he’s capable of. Last year, Rondo claimed his Bulls would have swept the Celtics had it not been for his untimely injury. If Blazers coach Terry Stotts and his team can’t adjust at the rate Rondo has proved himself able to, there’s a chance Rondo can make up for lost time.