Outside of Al Horford, who moved to the bench for the first time in his career, Jrue Holiday has sacrificed more than anyone on this year’s Boston Celtics—a team that’s made that word the theme of their season.
After spending three years with the Milwaukee Bucks as a top-three scoring option capped off by his first All-Star appearance in a decade last season, he’s now the fifth offensive option on most nights. At 13.1 points per game, his scoring average is the lowest since his third season in the league.
But as has been the case with every player in the Celtics’ top-six, sacrifice is all relative. And it might be the wrong word to use. Instead, it’s been all about refinement.
**There will be a “Sacrifice and refinement” article for every player in the top six. The one on Jaylen Brown’s driving can be read here.**
While Holiday’s offensive game may not be producing the same counting stats as it has in years past, his focus has transitioned to the defensive side of the ball.
“You have to be the quarterback of everything we do defensively,” Joe Mazzulla told Holiday during a Celtics practice in late December. “You have the freedom to do anything. You just have to make sure you have a reason why it was done and that it puts us in the best possession to have a great, successful possession.”
Boston’s new-look defensive style was put in place before the season began, as Mazzulla emphasized a sort of controlled chaos on that end of the court.
Holiday has been tasked to lead it.
The 33-year-old guard is a five-time All-Defense player and is often referred to as one of the best on-ball defender in the league by many of his peers, but this year’s Celtics have provided Holiday with a new challenge. In years past, his assignment was often as simple as guarding the opposing team’s best player. This season, he’s often been tasked to run the whole show in real time.
During the Celtics’ recent two-game series against the Pacers, Boston broke out a 2-1-2 zone defense. Indiana was rattled, and Holiday was in the middle of the action as the “one.”
Holiday controls the middle of the floor, while Oshae Brissett and Payton Pritchard are up top, and Jayson Tatum and Al Horford play down low. The clip moves fast, but Holiday’s quick decisions, combined with the rest of the team scrambling, completely halt TJ McConnell on the drive, forcing a turnover.
The 2-1-2 zone wasn’t in Boston’s playbook last year, but they’ve gotten experimental on the defensive end this season. It’s been funky, it’s been chaotic, and, for the most part, it’s been effective.
“Yeah, I enjoy that,” Holiday said of the Celtics’ defensive experimentation. “And it seems like the coaching staff and Joe enjoys it, too. And I also like it because we do it, maybe to you guys, it can be random times that we start doing it, but I feel like there’s always something that we can work on and something that we can learn from.
“So, even tonight, trying that 2-1-2 and then putting it in and slowing it down. We even did it the game before, where it kind of slowed them down. And I feel like it’s something that we’ll work on because we’re gonna need it down the line. So, actually being able to implement it and have the talent to do it, and to do it in so many variations, has been cool.”
Once again in the 2-1-2 zone, Holiday sinks back to pick up Myles Turner when he rolls to the rim but quickly shifts his focus to Jalen Smith when he cuts from the corner. Holiday pressures Smith, who has little room to work, and gets the steal.
Being tabbed as the quarterback of Boston’s defense is a daunting challenge, but it comes with some perks, the biggest being complete and utter freedom on the defensive end.
“I do,” Holiday said when asked whether or not he enjoys the mix of defensive coverages and increased responsibilities. “That’s definitely something different for me. I’m usually on-ball and guarding the best player, and locked into that, and trying to fight over screens and again, trying to get around [and] block shots and stuff. But I think being able to kind of talk and direct people on where to go has been new for me.”
The Celtics’ scrambling defense requires the buy-in and focus of everyone on the court, but Holiday is the head of the snake. His freedom can sometimes show up on the floor as gambles, but when they pay off, they pay off in a big way.
Something as simple as pre-switching a pick-n-roll to avoid a mismatch can be the difference between a bucket and a turnover, and Holiday showed that here.
De’Anthony Melton puts Pritchard in the pick-n-roll with Mo Bamba, expecting a paint mismatch. But before Bamba even gets into the paint, Holiday leaves his man on the perimeter for Pritchard to guard and takes on Bamba himself.
He eventually strips him in the post and eliminates what could have been a relatively easy Bamba post-up against Pritchard, earning the Celtics a quick transition three at a crucial moment in a close game.
While on defense, Holiday survives in an eternal state of help defense. He uses his freedom to sag off his man when it makes sense, oftentimes in an attempt to put pressure on the opposing team’s stars, help a teammate with a mismatch, or gamble for a steal that could help the Celtics get out in transition.
As the Los Angeles Lakers clear out the court in an attempt to allow LeBron James to attack Sam Hauser, Holiday leaks into space and plays helper. Just before James moves to drive to the hoop, Holiday sprints toward him, forcing the Lakers star to kick it to Jaxson Hayes in the middle of the floor.
Hayes finds Taurean Prince on the perimeter, who Holiday swiftly picks up. Prince drives left into Al Horford, feeding the ball back to Hayes in the lane. But once again, Holiday’s ball-hawk defense earns the Celtics a stop as he rejects Hayes’ floater attempt in the dying seconds of the shot clock.
Similarly, his role as a free safety has earned him some beautiful passing-lane steals.
De’Aaron Fox gets a screen from Harrison Barnes and drives on Hauser, but instead of just switching onto his new guy, Holiday follows Fox into the paint. He closes off Fox’s path back out to the perimeter and floats into the middle of the floor. When Fox goes to kick it back out, Holiday is ready and swoops in like prime Devin McCourty for an interception.
And if Holiday’s role as a roamer on defense isn’t impressive enough, he’s often been tasked with guarding players nearly a foot taller than him.
Early in the season, Holiday’s unique defensive role became evident as the Celtics matched him up against Joel Embiid. With Horford moving to the bench, Kristaps Porzingis could have been the logical choice to guard the MVP, but Mazzulla went with Holiday.
With his strength and defensive IQ, the Celtics were able to mitigate Embiid’s effectiveness in the post and on the perimeter.
Having Holiday guard Embiid let the Celtics throw a heavy dose of help his way, forcing the big man to make quick decisions which, in turn, allowed Boston’s defensive rotations to do the rest of the work. By keeping Embiid out of the post and limiting his shots when he got there, it was a win for the Celtics.
They used a similar strategy against other bigs too, as Holiday has found a ton of success guarding guys like Karl-Anthony Towns, Paolo Banchero, and Julius Randle. Those three and Embiid have combined to turn the ball over 12 times against Holiday this season, shooting a combined 16-of-43 (37.2%) against the Celtics guard.
For Brown, a focus on driving to the hoop has supplemented his sacrifices this season. For Holiday, it’s been captaining the Celtics’ defense, and he’s more than willing to make the sacrifice.
“I mean, yeah,” Holiday said when told that Porzingis said he sacrifices more than anyone on the team. “I think [I have] based off of where I came from, but that was a different team with different needs [in terms of] what they needed out of me.
“So, this team, what they need out of me is for me to be solid. And for me to be open to different types of strategies and situations every single game where I might be guarding a big or might be on a small or a big might be on me. There are so many different scenarios.”
Mazzulla trusts Holiday to run the defense, and while his offensive role may not be as prominent as it’s been throughout the course of his career, he’s more important to this Celtics defense than any other he’s been a part of.