Celtics see Jrue Holiday as being more than just ‘a dog on defense’

PHILADELPHIA — Two minutes into the first quarter Wednesday night, Jrue Holiday caught the ball in the right corner with Tyrese Maxey defending him. Holiday didn’t have a step on his man but didn’t necessarily need one in that matchup. So he backed Maxey down. And he kept backing Maxey down. And he continued to back Maxey down.

Holiday needed six dribbles to reach the restricted area but eventually arrived there to finish a lefty layup. With the Philadelphia 76ers sending hardly any help defense in his direction, the Boston Celtics guard punished Maxey for landing a difficult assignment. For Holiday, it was only the start of a relentless first quarter during which he racked up 10 points, three rebounds, one assist and one steal while shooting 5-for-8 from the field. His powerful start built a big early lead for the Celtics, who went on to beat Philadelphia 117-107. With Boston missing Kristaps Porziņģis (bruised right knee) and Jaylen Brown (illness), Joe Mazzulla demanded such aggressiveness from Holiday.

“This was the first time where Jrue, I told him before the game, I watched you on film take things over when guys on the Bucks team were out and you won games because of what you did on both ends,” Mazzulla said. “So he was able to do some of that tonight.”

On this Celtics team, Holiday can sometimes have a thankless job. He has the lowest usage rate of his career. As a 6-foot-4 guard, he is often asked to defend the best opposing player even if that happens to be a hulking big man. Over the first 11 games, he has attempted four fewer shots per game than he did while making the All-Star team for Milwaukee last season. Holiday has seen his pick-and-roll opportunities slashed. He can handle a bigger share of the offense, but the Celtics won’t always need him to do so. They still want him to tap into his All-Star skills from time to time, especially when they’re a bit short-handed.

That’s why, before taking on the 76ers, Mazzulla had a chat with the 33-year-old guard. According to Holiday, Mazzulla told him, “Just be you.”

“Gotta be aggressive,” Holiday said when relaying the conversation to The Athletic. “Gotta go out there and take my shots. Really just be aggressive and be me. I know on this team we have so much talent that, especially offensively, I can defer to other people. So having that conversation, he wants me to go out there and be aggressive.”

The Celtics got All-Star Jrue Holiday during the first half Wednesday night. Aggressive Jrue Holiday. Do-it-himself Jrue Holiday. It was just a quick glimpse of the guard at his slashing, attacking best, but a promising stretch for a team that will sometimes need Holiday to do more scoring than he’s usually handled over the early part of the season. Less than two minutes after bullying Maxey for a bucket at the rim, Holiday caught the ball in transition with Tobias Harris retreating on defense. The Celtics didn’t really have numbers on the fast break, but Holiday must have liked the matchup anyway. He crossed over, sliced through a dab of help defense from Joel Embiid and dropped in a lefty finger roll plus a foul.

Holiday’s five made field goals in the first quarter were all layups. Shortly after missing a quality chance on another strong post-up move, he set a screen for Derrick White and rolled to the basket for another easy bucket. Later in the period, defense led to offense for Holiday, as it often does. He scored a fast-break layup after Dalano Banton knocked the ball away from Embiid in transition, then converted another one after stealing a pass from Marcus Morris. Holiday scored 13 of his 18 points in the first half.

The Celtics can always expect Holiday to provide rugged defense. Even while asked to sacrifice some of his offensive production, he has lived up to his stellar reputation on the other end of the court. His rebounding has also been a huge plus for Boston. He’s averaging 7.5 boards per game, which would easily smash his previous career high of 5.1.

“There really hasn’t been a challenge (fitting in),” Holiday told The Athletic. “I think it’s just more of a mindset. Being able to pick up where we lack. If it’s rebounding, then I’ll do that. If it’s paint touches to pass out and get good shots, I’ll do that. If it’s guarding the best player one through five, I’ll do that. But kind of what Joe was talking about was doing a lot of everything: being a scorer, being aggressive, as well as kind of being a dog on defense.”

Holiday said he has always been a pass-first player. He said coaches have long needed to ask him to shoot more often, not the other way around. He believes he’s the type of guard who can “just kind of play with others.”

“I guess it’s not really about trying,” Holiday said. “You just do it. I’m kind of a versatile player. So there’s things I can do to affect the game without having the ball. So if it’s offensive rebounding, if it’s rebounding in general, if it’s getting steals and deflections, making big plays, whatever it is. Again, just being a guy that sometimes I’ll get touches, sometimes I won’t. Some days I’ll get 15 shots, some days I’ll get four. I think just initially having the mindset of being aggressive, getting to the basket, playing through the paint is something that he wants.”

Mazzulla also wants Holiday’s input on the Celtics’ defensive strategies. Holiday said they have asked him to be a “safety” and to let everyone know what he sees.

“I talk to Joe about it too,” Holiday said. “Tell him what I see and we go from there, if we want to go zone or are switching or are staying connecting to our man, whatever it is. I feel like Joe and the coaching staff has empowered me to see through a different lens. Before I didn’t have to worry about that. Whatever the coach would say defensively, that’s what would happen. But I think with him doing that it really empowers us to be like, we really have to be in tune with the game. If we’re playing against Duncan Robinson, it’s probably not good to switch sometimes. Just trail him. And I feel like being able to do that as a player and realize that on the court is just another skill that I get to add to my game.”

Why does Mazzulla value Holiday’s feedback so highly? The coach said Holiday has “been in the league a long time” and “guarded everybody.”

“He’s played against every coach, every team,” Mazzulla said. “He’s got great instincts on player profiles, small details on certain plays on how he’s guarded them, so we just communicate as we got into shootarounds and film sessions. The biggest thing is making sure he’s comfortable using his instincts and making plays for us, and having guys around him play just as hard.”

Mazzulla likes to hear many of his players’ views on the Celtics’ approach.

“I have different conversations with different players about different things throughout the game,” Mazzulla said. “With him it’s more about where are we at defensively? What can we do to change the flow or rhythm of the game? And he’s really taken on the empowerment and responsibility of that. I think when you have a guy with his caliber and versatility you’ve got to use it in different ways, and he’s done a great job of spearheading that. Him and Derrick (White) have a special gift of when they’re playing really hard they inspire others to play harder, so when you can empower those guys to do things, I think that’s important.”

(Photo: Dustin Satloff / Getty Images)

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