Watch a possession at random from the Pelicans' first-round series against the Trail Blazers and you'll likely feel the grip of Jrue Holiday, who has managed to make the matchup his own. Even when checking Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum, it is Holiday who dictates terms, cutting off angles and blotting out passing lanes to put Portland's stars in lockdown. To even get the ball to one of those guards with Holiday lurking about takes a concerted effort, a theme that runs through every phase of his coverage. Good intentions aren't nearly enough; to get anything past Holiday—anything at all—requires opponents to be unfailingly precise.
This is because Holiday, who has flown under the radar for years as one of the league's most physically imposing guards, cannot be moved. All of the nudges and shoves that perimeter players use to create distance seem to have little effect. It takes a thicket of ball screens to pry Holiday's mark loose, all of which buys mere seconds—often in the shadow of Anthony Davis's help. The idea of wiping Holiday out of a play with a hard screen as you might some other waterbug guard is simply out of the question. He is 6'4'' with a 6'7'' wingspan, and strong as hell.
So strong, in fact, that Holiday can push through contested spaces that other guards cannot. Many basketball plays that appear to be driven by speed and athleticism are actually a function of strength. There are NBA players with dizzying end-to-end speed who have trouble getting by the first line of defense for just this reason; at the point of contact with a defender, a speed advantage can be neutralized. Yet it's at that exact juncture that Holiday sets himself apart. This is what happens when McCollum tries to put a forearm on Holiday's hip to keep him from getting to the basket:
It's nice to be able to get around a defender, but Holiday largely goes through them. One cannot overstate the value of his ability to move through space unencumbered. While other ball handlers adjust to the physicality of the postseason, Holiday forges on with improbably perfect balance. He drives straight into Al-Farouq Aminu—a forward five inches taller—and bumps him out out of his spot, only to finish up and through Aminu's contest:
Portland's defense held opponents to the lowest shooting percentage in the restricted area this season, according to NBA.com, but can't seem to keep Holiday from trucking his way to the rim. McCollum played the part of a speed bump. Maurice Harkless and Evan Turner tried and failed to stall him. Half of Holiday's attempts in this series have come from that space; he took 14 shots from the restricted area in Game 2 alone, making 10. And even when he missed, Holiday so easily moved the Blazer guards and wings that he drew in other defenders, creating opportunities for Davis and others to slink in for offensive rebounds:
There's no easy way to help against a threat like Holiday, specifically because he rolls downhill with such startling ease. Bigs in the NBA are conditioned to rotate according to pre-planned schemes or in response to obvious blow-bys. Holiday defies them. The other defenders on the floor might not even realize how much of an advantage Holiday has created until he's pushing right to the rim. They may think their teammate is holding their own without seeing that Holiday is controlling their movement with an arm bar, or ready to lock them out of a play with a pivot. All of which only adds to the perception that Holiday, one of the breakout stars of the first round, is a sneaky sort of good. His ways are deceptive even to the opponents at his mercy.
His incredible scoring in this series (27 points per game on 55% shooting from the field, to say nothing of his five rebounds and six assists) is owed to that considered physicality. Holiday isn't lowering his shoulder or bowling opponents over. He uses his strength to manipulate and to endure, qualities that make every possession malleable. This edge came gradually. Holiday has always been long, but at the 2009 NBA Draft Combine, he was bested on the bench press by Darren Collison, Jeff Teague, and a scrawny Stephen Curry. In the nine years since, he worked in the weight room to create the leverage he needed. Holiday doesn't have to be the most explosive athlete on the floor when his strength—from his foundation, to his core, to his hold of the ball—makes him so difficult to slow and to stop. He had the talent. He honed the instincts. Now he's made clear what a powerful undercurrent his physical presence can be.