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Season in Review: Holiday Observed

In the shadow of Anthony Davis’s brilliance, Jrue Holiday has done all of the little things to power the Pelicans back into the postseason

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Given that the playoffs are coming up, I’ve been a little preoccupied with Kevin Durant’s weaknesses. Not because they’re of any specific use to me. I would just feel more prepared if I knew them, you know? In any case, I can report, based on the Pelicans’ win over the Warriors on Saturday, that Jrue Holiday is one of those weaknesses. Sort of. Durant still had 41 points on 26 shots. But he didn’t get these two points, which were crucial to the outcome of the game.

Holiday, this 2017-18 season, always seems to come up with it. “It” here could mean the above steal or the 13 points he scored in the final quarter of Saturday’s game; or piecing together a 6-0 run to steal a late lead against the Spurs in February; or this dagger 3 against the Hornets in early March; or that chase-down block on Damian Lillard. “It” could be the 19.7 points, 7.2 assists, and 5.0 rebounds he’s averaged since the All-Star break; or defending positions 1 through 4, which is especially important given that Solomon Hill’s been out for the majority of the season. We really should talk about Jrue Holiday more, but because he plays on a team with Anthony Davis, we have to talk about Davis first.

It can’t be helped. The crux of all national discussions about the Pelicans, who are not regularly on national television, is that Davis, despite being a tear in the skein of reality that leaks 40-point performances, Cannot Do It On His Own. It’s a difficult take to resist; not only does the math work out, it’s also been proved by his career history so far. Owing to terrible luck, injury, and the Pelicans’ relentlessly haphazard (relative to every other team in the NBA) business practices, Davis has never had quite enough help. You’re already thinking of the 2015 playoffs, when Davis had first-round averages of 31.5 points and 11 rebounds thrown back in his face by Steph Curry and the Warriors, who had experience, the momentum of history, bench scoring, and more than one All-Star on their side. The only other players who could be counted on for more than 10 points a night during that series—Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon—both fled to Houston after New Orleans’ injury-riddled 2015-16 season. The Pelicans had cap space in 2016, but spent it on Solomon Hill and E’Twaun Moore. The prognosis was that New Orleans was bad and would stay bad, because when afforded the flexibility to get better, it chose to stay mediocre. But that’s not this season. Davis has help now. He has Nikola Mirotic. He has Ian Clark. Moore is hitting jumpers now. He has Rajon Rondo, who lives for the playoffs.

New Orleans had even added another All-Star, DeMarcus Cousins, in 2017, but just as playing two big men together was beginning to work at least half the time, they lost him to a season-ending Achilles injury. You know all of this. You also know that the Pelicans, right now, are roughly as good (results-wise) without Cousins as they were with him.

What you may not have noticed, amid Davis doing stuff like averaging 35 points and 13 rebounds for the entire month of February [gawk] and unloading 53 points on the Phoenix Suns [gasp], is that Holiday—whose re-signing this past offseason felt obligatory at best—has been having himself a season. This is because Holiday is, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, tough to get excited about. He’s all the things that the casual fan doesn’t necessarily find interesting: hardworking, prudent, and aesthetically unadventurous, though he can be fancy if and when he needs to be. He is likely not going to produce the moments that will be looped and GIF’d into oblivion; he’s the person behind the person that produces those moments. Someone has to get the steal, start the break, toss the alley. He does the vital things you might not be able to recall with much clarity, say, a week after they happen. But they’re vital nonetheless.

For instance: When Davis goes 6-for-19 against the Cavs, Holiday can be counted on to take over the offense entirely. I’ll acknowledge up front that Holiday’s 25 points weren’t enough—the Pelicans lost this game at the end of last month, 107-102. But Jrue, shirt untucked, swashbuckled for those final minutes at Quicken Loans Arena. He went at George Hill, then at Tristan Thompson, then at LeBron James. In the final frame, the Pelicans would clear out, Holiday would take a moment to catch his breath, and then he’d try to claw his way back in again. It would have been inspiring if the loss weren’t so deflating; the Pelicans then slipped to eighth in the West as a result.

But they snapped a four-game skid against Memphis’s G League team, then beat the Suns, bested a motivated Warriors team, and finally, punched their ticket to the playoffs for the first time in three years with a win over the L.A. Clippers on Monday night. Holiday factored majorly in each win, making his presence felt on either side of the floor. What you’re going to remember about Monday night is Rondo and Davis treating the Clippers like the Washington Generals. And this is fine, because it was exhilarating.

What will probably fade from memory, like the strip on Kevin Durant, is that Holiday had 11 assists, five rebounds, three steals, and three blocks. One of those he raked off of Montrezl Harrell, who’s got a good four inches on him. It’s hard to find footage of it, because it wasn’t terribly exciting. Someone has to do the boring stuff.