When Jrue Holiday clocks in for work tonight, he’ll lace up his sneakers and attempt to keep his team coherent against the most disruptive defense in the league. It will be on Holiday to see possibilities through seven-foot wingspans, to create options even as the ball is swarmed at every turn. Then, as a respite between scoring attempts, Holiday will unwind by matching Russell Westbrook, in all his fury, step for step. Should Westbrook rest, Holiday will chase Paul George or Dennis Schröder instead. There is no end in sight—only the endless cycle of stops and scores, carried out at one of the league’s fastest paces.
Elite defenders almost never handle the ball as much as Holiday, and high-level point guards almost never defend so well. The reason for that is simple. “It's hard,” Holiday says. “It's really hard. To be able to stop somebody, to always be on point, to always know, be aware. It's hard to play defense and then go down on offense and make a play. If it was easy, I guess more people would be doing it.” The only other players to average 20 points and eight assists per game this season, as Holiday has, are Westbrook, James Harden, and John Wall. All three blow defensive assignments with casual regularity, whether by lunging out of position or snoozing as their man cuts backdoor.
Holiday, meanwhile, works a double shift. Anthony Davis is New Orleans’ best and most important player, but it’s Holiday who rises to meet so many of the team’s needs. The Pelicans have asked him to run the show at times and to play off the ball at others, to check guards and wings and Kevin Durant. And why shouldn’t they? Holiday is, at once, the best point guard, shooting guard, and small forward on the roster. The great luxury of his involvement is that he can be shifted to address whatever problems arise.
Some are matters for a first-rate perimeter defender. The best stoppers in the game spend their careers trying to get into the head of a star scorer. Holiday lives in one. Knowing what he would want, as a playmaker, tells him what to take away—starting with their personal space. “Kinda like a gnat,” Holiday says. “Never leaving 'em. Every time they think they have something easy, it's never easy. I know, because obviously I handle the ball a lot, that it can be frustrating. It's hard. Especially scorers, they want something easy to get 'em started. If you get something easy, the rim becomes the size of the ocean.”
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What Holiday challenges most is an opponent's peace of mind. There are no simple passes when he’s in the picture, and no open shots. Attempting to screen him can sometimes make matters worse; an opponent may get a step on Holiday that way, but they succeed only in putting one of the NBA’s peskiest defenders out of their sight line. To combat the uncomfortable, they’ve turned out the lights. It’s in those moments that we see what a number Holiday puts on even the savviest of scorers. Damian Lillard, while haunted by Holiday in the first round of the 2018 playoffs, rushed shots uncharacteristically and killed his dribble at inopportune times. When he finally found himself open, Lillard sometimes passed the ball out anyway, convinced that Holiday was lurking behind him.
At this point, Holiday knows what to look for. “It can be the type of shots they take,” he says. “It can be the shots that they pass up. It can be a lot of things. It could be the body language. They could be frustrated and you could see it on their face. They could be upset, complaining to the refs. And then there's some guys who don't show any of that, and it's just a rough shooting night.” Thankless as defense can be, there is a certain thrill in thwarting an opponent so fully as to make them lose touch with their game. To forget who they are and how to get to their spots. Holiday is the kind of defender who can bring about a full-on crisis of basketball identity.
Holiday sees defense as something that is within his power to control. It’s an oversimplification to say that good defense is a matter of effort. Lesser defenders can over-help or fly out of position if they’re not careful, their best efforts turning against them. Those operating on Holiday’s level, by contrast, are skilled and intuitive in ways that transforms what even the slightest effort can mean. Holiday understands that his focus and investment alone can go a long way. “I know there's times where I'm not always gonna have a good offensive day,” he says. “That's something that I feel like I can control, is playing defense.”
The Pelicans have come to depend on that instinct for survival. When Holiday is on the floor, New Orleans (which ranks 24th in points allowed per possession overall) finds its defensive competence. Put Holiday and Davis on the floor together and the Pelicans transform into a top-five defense—a promising sign in spite of a middling record. There is a satisfying rhythm to the way that Holiday and Davis float around one another in almost perfect concert. “We've been here together six years, so building that chemistry has taken some time,” Holiday says. “Both of us have grown together, defensively and offensively. He just makes it easy because of how smart of a player he is.”
Davis is as brilliant a player as advertised. Still, the fact that New Orleans can only function when Holiday is also in the lineup with him speaks to both the peculiarity of the Pelicans’ roster and all that Holiday does to redeem it. Shooters look more functional when Holiday can first initiate the action. Other point guards appear steadier when Holiday is always in frame, ready to bail them out. Lacking defenders across all three perimeter positions are more playable because Holiday can cross-match to protect them. It’s easy to see how Holiday wound up totaling more minutes and covering more ground, per NBA.com, than any other player in the league this season. It’s his contributions that hold the entire team together.
And at the end of a long night’s work, Holiday isn’t too concerned with how much he scored, or even how much his latest All-Star assignment did. “It's really impossible to shut down anybody,” he admits. Instead, he wants that All-Star to trudge back to their locker room and off to the hotel with a twinge in the back of their mind, a gnat they try to swat away but can’t. An unmistakable, unshakable feeling. “That I was there,” Holiday says. “All the time.”