On the first play of the Celtics’ win against the Knicks on Friday night, Boston ran a designed post-up for point guard Jrue Holiday. The veteran was determined to get to his spot as he backed down New York guard Donte DiVincenzo with three purposeful dribbles.
Eventually, Holiday’s momentum and force carried him a bit too far. He found himself underneath the rim, where he missed a layup from an awkward angle. Three minutes later, Holiday pursued another post-up against DiVincenzo, but as he tried to force his way into the paint he was stripped of the ball.
Although the results of these two plays were discouraging, they appeared to send a message. The Celtics wanted to get Holiday involved, and they wanted to get him back to an area in which he is quite comfortable.
Holiday, who was acquired in a trade with the Trail Blazers in October, is a tough, physical guard who has been effective in the paint throughout his career. But he has never been part of an offense quite as diverse as this one, and that has led to him becoming more of a spot-up shooter and distributor while Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kristaps Porzingis are on the attack.
This season, a career-low 58.7 percent of Holiday’s field goal attempts have been 2-pointers. And when he has gotten into the paint, his success level has dipped. Holiday shot at least 58 percent within 5 feet of the hoop in each of the last six years, but this season that figure is 52.2.
“It’s not easy to come to a team where it’s kind of established with people that have been here a couple years,” Celtics guard Derrick White said. “And he’s a great player and he’s done so many great things in this league, so we just have to do a better job of empowering him more to do what he does. We’ve got a long way to go, and we’re going to need him this whole year.”
On Friday, Holiday was unaffected by the two failed early chances near the rim. Over the next 12 minutes he powered through the paint for a lefthanded hook, had a strong drive down the left side for a layup, and went end-to-end for a fast-break layup. He finished with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, with eight of his attempts coming inside the arc. He also added six rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block.
Porzingis returned after missing four games because of a calf strain, and coach Joe Mazzulla said his presence alters schemes and presents new opportunities for Holiday to attack.
“Everyone slides down and it’s a different matchup there, so he’s able to take advantage of a smaller guard on him sometimes,” Mazzulla said. “And then we play faster. I don’t know the numbers on what our pace was, but it just felt like we got into our spacing and we were organized. We were organized much faster. When you do that, it’s easier for guys to kind of make plays.”
By the same token, Mazzulla said, there are times when White’s favorable matchup results in him guiding the offense more often. And those nuances combined with the presence of so many other stars will likely limit Holiday this season. His usage rate (17 percent) and field goal percentage (43.3) are career lows, and he is averaging just 10.9 shots per game, the fewest since his rookie season.
So nights such as Friday could be important for Holiday and the Celtics to remember what he is capable of when put in the right positions.
“I think it shows his character and his leadership,” Porzingis said. “He’s not forcing anything if it’s not there. He’s going to make the right play for us. And [against the Knicks], he was just being aggressive and he was effective and was making plays and scoring the ball. And that’s what we need from everybody. He’s just setting an example. OK, maybe his stats are a little bit down this year, but I think it speaks more about he’s willing to sacrifice for us as a team.”