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Jrue Holiday and the Art of Defense

On October 1st, the Boston Celtics acquired point guard Jrue Holiday through a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers. In return, the Blazers received guard Malcolm Brogdon, center Robert Williams III, a 2024 first-round pick, and a 2029 first-round pick.  Holiday had spent the last three years in Milwaukee where he was selected to the All-Star team for only the second time in his career in 2023. He also won a championship in 2021 with the help of former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Holiday was a centerpiece in the deal that sent Damian Lillard to Milwaukee, and didn’t fit on the Blazers team of young and potentially emerging stars, so he was immediately flipped to Boston in exchange for more young talent. 

With only two All-Star team selections and zero All-NBA appearances, it’s easy to overlook Holiday’s talent on the court. If you primarily stick to box score watching and stat tracking, his numbers don’t stand out amongst the stars of the NBA. During his three-year stint with Milwaukee, he averaged 18.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game. He shot 49% from the field and 40% from beyond the arc. These are not superstar numbers, numbers that wouldn’t suggest a team would trade two starter-caliber players and two first-round picks for. So what makes Jrue Holiday this valuable to Boston?

Holiday’s true talent lies in stats that can’t be recorded in box scores. His success comes from the side of the ball that can be hard to track for casual fans. Holiday’s defense is what sets him apart from other guards in the league. Great and consistent defense is hard to come by in the modern NBA. In the 2022-2023 season, regular season games averaged 230 combined points. Exactly ten years ago in 2012, the average combined points were 196. The modern age of the league includes fast-paced movements and intense scoring. Players are getting better and better each year, and it's becoming harder to slow down dominant offenses. Shooting splits and points per game will only continue to rise, which is bad news for defense-oriented players like Holiday.

Despite this, from 2017 to 2023, Holiday made five All-Defensive teams including three first-team selections. The Milwaukee Bucks benefited heavily from this and made a finals appearance in 2021 against the Phoenix Suns. It was in this series that Holiday showed just how much of a gamechanger he is on the defensive side of the ball.

The 2021 NBA Finals

Going into the game, Holiday was tasked with guarding both Chris Paul and Devin Booker. Just one of those players represents a challenge in itself, yet Holiday was assigned to switch to both of them throughout the series. Paul was coming into the series as an All-Star player and the league leader in free throw percentage. At the same time, Booker was fresh off of a season where he averaged 25.6 points and also made an All-Star appearance. This duo became very formidable in the playoffs, propelling Phoenix to the finals. 

During the series, the Suns used many screens and pick plays to throw off Holiday on the perimeter. Using his 7’0 frame, Suns center Deandre Ayton was burdened with screening Holiday and creating an empty side ball screen where Paul could drive to the hoop. However, this never worked for Phoenix. Holiday simply spun around Ayton and quickly attached himself back to Paul, which led to multiple turnovers and poor shot selections without the anticipated switch. Eventually, Ayton started screening for Paul at halfcourt. At this point, Holiday used his lateral quickness and short bursts of speed to catch up to Paul, force steals, and cause even more bad shot selections. This happened over and over again until Phoenix ultimately gave up the strategy. 

According to tracking data on NBA.com, Devin Booker shot 9/30 with nine turnovers whenever he was lined up against Holiday. During the season, Booker shot 48% from the field. In this series, he was held to a measly 30% when Holiday was his primary matchup. Even when Booker played off-ball and attempted isolation scoring attempts, Holiday continued his relentless defensive play. 

With interior help from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez, Holiday was able to stay on the perimeter and limit the damage from deep, which Phoenix had done plenty of in these playoffs. This defensive trio made attacking the rim and pulling up from beyond the arc incredibly difficult for all teams that crossed their path, but especially a perimeter-centric team like the Suns. This defensive intensity, spearheaded by Holiday, catapulted the Bucks ahead of other teams on their way to a 4-2 series win against the Suns. With one ring already in his hand, Holiday looked forward to a successful future with Milwaukee. This future in the Badger State would only last two more years. In the offseason of 2023, Damian Lilliard’s name suddenly became available in the trade market. After mainly failed talks with the Miami Heat, Lilliard was eventually dished to Milwaukee. The Trail Blazers received Holiday in return as well as the aforementioned Deandre Ayton in a three-team trade with the Suns. It didn’t even take 24 hours for Portland to deal out Holiday for two players and draft capital from the Boston Celtics. 

Jrue Holiday as a Celtic

After losing former Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart to the Grizzlies, the Celtics desperately needed a like-minded player to fill the void at the guard position. Out steps Smart and Malcolm Brogdon, and in steps Jrue Holiday. The two-time All-Star was now in Boston green and ready to start for his fourth NBA team. The Celtics also went out of their way to trade for former All-Star Kristaps Porzingis from the Washington Wizards. Porzingis provides additional shooting support for Boston as well as inside defense at the rim, which they lost with trading WIlliams. With a multitude of returning and familiar faces, Boston can experiment with their starting lineup on a nightly basis. They can play Jayston Tatum at the small forward or power forward position and can stretch Jaylen brown to the three spot. Celtics coach Joe Mazuzulla can use this to his benefit when planning formations and schemes for his team. Overall, Holiday adds a flexibility to the Boston lineup that keeps their star power on the court like they couldn’t in previous years.

But what can fans expect from the Celtics with Holiday?

The Celtics look to compete immediately with the best of the East. After the Holiday and the Porzingis trade, plenty of analysts predict the Celtics to finish as either the one or two seed in the conference. 

During the 2023-2024 season, Jrue Holiday has yet another chance to show off his premier defensive skills on a championship contender. Having highly prolific scorers by his side such as Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kristpas Porzingis should amplify his offense and elevate his efficiency. Only time will tell if the additions to the Celtics roster during the offseason will bring them back to their championship ways of the past, but a winning player like Holiday could very well be the final piece.


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