BOSTON — Tom Thibodeau sat at the podium pre-game rattling off Celtics names without mentioning Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. New York had to account for Kristaps Porzingis’ floor spacing in his return. He mentioned bench players Sam Hauser and Payton Pritchard as threats to dart out on. He called Derrick White one of the most underrated players in the league. He deemed Jrue Holiday one of the best period.
Holiday didn’t show that in the counting stats to begin his Celtics tenure. Entering Friday’s win, which once again showcased the overwhelming offensive depth that Boston’s lineup features when fully loaded following Porzingis’ return, Holiday had averaged a modest 12.2 points per game on a career-worst 42.1% shooting percentage. Sporting the lowest usage rate of his career (17.2%) and the fewest shots (10.9 per game) since his rookie season, Holiday emerged for 16 points, six rebounds and five assists on 7-for-11 shooting in the 133-123 win where everybody ate.
“It’s not easy to come to a team where it’s kind of established, people have been here for a couple of years,” White said after scoring 30 points. “(Holiday)’s a great player and he’s done so many things in this league … even when he doesn’t have great numbers, he still has good games and impact winning … crashing, tip-outs, getting loose balls. Five (assists), but even just making the simple pass, good-to-great … we’re lucky to have him.”
Holiday took the first shot attempt of the game, a miss inside that Porzingis flushed behind him for the first two of his eight straight points to mark his return. He entered shooting 51.6% at the rim, down from 65.5% with the Bucks last year and watching them rim-out often. Joe Mazzulla didn’t lament his low-key role in the offense despite aspiring to see him participate in the team’s late game offense. The Celtics’ matchup-based attack often put the ball into White’s hands and leaving Holiday passing, spacing and crashing. Holiday posted two career highs to start the year — 7.2 rebounds and 1.8 offensive boards per game.
His 15 years gave Holiday experience playing in offenses that prioritized matchup-hunting. The Celtics’ offense did force him to make some adjustments though. Mazzulla challenged him to screen and play in the pocket in ways he rarely had, producing his best offensive showing in crunch time against the Heat in October. Over the past eight games before Friday, missing two with an ankle sprain, he shot 37% despite hitting 42.3% of his threes.
“We’re winning games. I feel like that’s what matters to me,” Holiday told CLNS Media on Friday morning. “Whatever I can do to help and be out there on the court. Whether it’s 30 minutes, if it’s 40 minutes, it doesn’t matter to me … we’re trying to piece things together, especially in games like Indy or Orlando … the part that’s new is having so many great pieces on the court at once. Usually, somebody guarding me is one of the better defenders and they put not the best defender on D.White, which I’m kind of like, ‘that’s a little bit of disrespect to D.White.’ Because he can go … he’s been playing well, he gets downhill, he can shoot the three. I understand this game is about mismatches and getting advantages.”
Alongside his crunch time rolls to the basket, Mazzulla enjoyed utilizing Holiday in post isolations with spacing around him where he could bang smaller defenders and hit hooks. He averaged 1.00 point per possession (57th percentile) while shooting 57.1% on those plays despite watching so many layups and floaters roll in-and-out to begin the year. Holiday shrugged them off before Friday’s game, saying he continued to work on them during an uncharacteristically long layoff at home. Mazzulla wished he went back to those plays more late in Monday’s loss.
The Celtics’ head coach didn’t find himself needing to prioritize plays or passes to Holiday though. Partially because Holiday enters each night without expectations for shots or ball time. He even began the year willing to come off the bench. But it also stems back to Thibodeau’s statement on so many Celtics players being able to hurt opponents. Boston’s starting lineup beat opponents by 27.5 points per 100 possessions with Holiday under-utilized. In Friday’s rout, a third straight over a tough New York defense and offense that kept making runs, all five starters scored double-figures. Porzingis hit seven straight shots. Brown and Tatum finished 15-for-31.
“I love this guy, it shows his character and his leadership,” Porzingis said. “He’s not forcing anything if it’s not there. He’s gonna make the right play for us and tonight he was being aggressive and he was effective and making plays and scoring the ball. That’s what we need from everybody, and he’s just setting an example of ok, maybe his stats are a little bit down this year, but it speaks more that he’s willing to sacrifice for us a team. We all can put our stats to the side and just focus on winning and making the right play for each other.”
Some of those stats, particularly a 15.7% turnover rate (his highest since 2017) and a career-low 19.9% assist rate needed improvement entering Friday. Mazzulla acknowledged the Celtics would benefit from having the ball more in the hands of Boston’s best playmakers in crunch time. A free-flowing effort prevented there from being one against the Knicks though, Holiday finding his own with a fake handoff into a layup and banging his way to another while finding White for three and combining with Pritchard for a full-court run to beat the buzzer in the first. He scored three times on four shots to begin the third, then took part in longer passing sequences, including initiating the highlight breakout Tatum slam through White with a steal on Donte DiVincenzo.
Holiday rarely looks rattled despite making an occasional miscue. Every opponent seems to feature a former teammate, DiVincenzo with the Bucks and Josh Hart and Randle from the Pelicans in this case. He comfortably stepped out of the lineup to allow Al Horford to close the first half. In the third, he shook off a Randle collision with his face and another missed point blank layup, and helped close the game by draining an 18-footer.
“It’s great to see Jrue be aggressive,” Mazzulla said. “For Jaylen and Jayson, there was a point where I don’t think Jayson scored in the first quarter and Jaylen had taken three shots, and you couldn’t tell because they were doing other stuff … that, to me, is success, because their teammates took the pressure off them and they facilitated. That is what it’s going to take for us to be great, the balance … the matchup changed when Kristaps is out there, everyone slides down … and (Holiday) is able to take advantage of a smaller guard on him sometimes and we played faster … the faster we play, the more organized we are, the reads are easier for everyone. We get more possessions, more opportunities.”