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Jrue Holiday’s knack for slowing down NBA’s most elite scorers remains as rare as it is exciting

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Someone needed to laud Holiday’s recent defensive dominance against Paul George!

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Under normal circumstances, Paul George would probably be a lead candidate for the 2018-19 Most Valuable Player award. Unfortunately for him, both Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden have spent the first four months of the season redefining what dominance looks like in the modern NBA, relegating the Oklahoma City star to a lesser tier (though being part of a group that houses the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid is far from insulting). George has been Oklahoma City’s catalyst this season, putting them in position to have home court advantage in at least the first round of the postseason.

His first six contests in February were indicative of the dominance he has displayed thus far. He averaged just a hair under 40 points per game (39.7) on 48.6 percent shooting, a rock-solid mark for a forward even before considering that 87 of the 140 shots he put up came from behind the three-point arc.

Before heading to Charlotte to enjoy the All-Star Weekend festivities, George and his Thunder teammates flew to New Orleans for one last showdown. Though the 28 points he scored mirrored his season average, the game marked one of his worst shooting performances of the season.

In the Smoothie King Center, that has come to be known as “The Jrue Holiday Effect.”

Other names that were considered (by me) include “The Holidaze” and “The Jruth,” which some players would simply be unable to handle.

Regardless of what it is called (additional suggestions in the comments are welcomed and encouraged!), the grief that Holiday gives even the league’s most prolific scorers cannot be lauded enough. Though it is not quite fair anymore to say his defense is not appreciated, there is plenty of ground left to cover to make sure it is properly understood. The following dissection of his most recent matchup against Paul George aims to capture just how Jrue manages to keep getting the job done.

Taking by Giving

In the modern NBA, the talent is such that even the best team defenses will usually allow more than 100 points per game and per 100 possessions. Knowing this, gameplans are structured to try and force teams to find suboptimal ways to score. That goes for both the entire team and, as demonstrated by Holiday’s defense on George, the individual level.

Holiday has a knack for making opponents beat him on his terms, and that was evident from this game’s opening minutes:

These are both simple yet solid sequences for the entire defensive unit in the first quarter, and they start with Holiday not trying to do too much. By anticipating the screen from Steven Adams, he eliminates any possibility of George driving left in the first clip, forcing him to pick up his dribble and make a pass. He similarly forces George off of the three point line and into another pass in the second. Holiday guided George toward Julius Randle both times, who did his part by shifting into the lane, which accomplished the goal of forcing the ball out of the superstar’s hands.

The plays result in a deflection by Miller and a shot that, if the help defender still cared about playing good basketball, would have been very tightly contested. Even if the attempts were clean, the Pelicans would rather have Terrance Ferguson or Patrick Patterson take them instead of George on any day of the week. These outcomes are more a result of team cohesion than individual prowess, but New Orleans, which has struggled mightily in both departments for most of this season, was able to achieve success in both quite often throughout this contest.

Perhaps because of how often he found himself engulfed by multiple Pelicans in the first half, George opted to take the ball up the court on the final possession of the second quarter, undoubtedly intending to create his own shot in isolation. Holiday had help in the plays above, but this time, he didn’t need it to force yet another pass:

Holiday once again dares George to go right, which he does, only to be thwarted by the fleet footwork of the Pelicans guard. If a play that starts with an isolation from an MVP candidate ends with a floater from Nerlens Noel, something went right. This was just one of many times Jrue managed stick right to George’s hip, a skill that sets him apart from nearly every other perimeter player in the league.

Where You Go, I Go

Finally, a play that showed up in the stat sheet!

This is actually the second shot Holiday blocked in the game (the first and third are still to come), but it demonstrates a unique blend of strength, discipline and intelligence. He forces George to move towards the baseline, does not over-commit before a move is actually made, absorbs a clear out and still manages to whack the ball off the glass, which is made all the more impressive by the fact that George has a five-inch height advantage in this matchup (he is listed at 6’9” compared to Holiday’s 6’4”.)

When George tried speed things up in the second half, he managed to get his shot to the hoop, but the path was anything but easy:

Holiday takes a couple of bumps but manages to stay right on the ball. Though George winds up right at the rim, the path to the basket was impeded enough to get him out of his rhythm into an unsuccessful attempt to draw a foul, causing the miss. Maybe in the first quarter with fresh legs and a clean slate, this shot falls for George, but three quarters of frustration may have been getting to his head at this point.

Even when trying to free himself up behind the three-point line (where he is shooting a wicked 49.6 percent on a career-high 9.6 attempts per game), Holiday allows no breathing room:

This is a Holiday appreciation piece, so the clip is cut as he breaks towards the basket because we are going to assume that he would wind up making his shot. Defense this good is probably very tiring though, so even in the off chance that he would miss a layup (spoiler: he would) he deserves a pass.

George goes with a between the legs dribble from this left hand to his right, but Holiday is unfazed. After the ball is momentarily tipped away, Nerlens Noel scoots up to set a screen, but Holiday zips around the man who was once traded for him and swats the shot with ease. The ability to maneuver around picks without losing your opponent is one of the most important and underrated aspects of defense, especially in an era of basketball that is so pick-and-roll heavy, and it is key to what makes players like Holiday, Kawhi Leonard, Mike Conley and even George himself such able defenders.

The ensuing break may have resulted in an air-balled corner three, part two of a trend that suggests that blocking three-pointers ruins Holiday’s offense, but the block itself was not easy. Adams has a reputation for being among the league’s most effective screen setters, but his effort here is lackadaisical and as a result Holiday can fly by without breaking stride, and he manages to tip the shot without fouling as a result.

In the waning moments of the game as desperation was kicking in for heavily-favored Oklahoma City, Adams tries to make up for this miscue on a play out of a timeout, only to be whistled for an illegal screen:

He saw Holiday coming at full speed and was a step late getting to where he needed to be on the court to slow him down. Holiday may not have even been able to close the gap in time had he cleared Adams, but Jahlil Okafor rotated perfectly to ensure a tough contest.

Holiday has always had a knack for executing the unlikely block of a three-point shot. As a player who seems to relish in the unflashiness of his game, they make up a nice chunk of his highlight reel. But rather than those plays being borne from occasionally rewarded over-aggression, they are built on the back of impeccable patience.

Only if the Bait is Good

Getting right up into a player’s grill is often more than enough to force a miss. Pelicans’ play-by-play voice Joel Meyers will be the first to tell you when a player affected a shot despite not getting a hand on it. By batting aside feints meant to pull him off of his feet, Holiday is consistently able to stay grounded and make life hard for the aspiring shot taker when they finally rise for real:

Harden has turned drawing fouls on three pointers into an art that perimeter threats around the league have attempted to emulate. The quick pump-fake from George is likely an attempt to get Holiday in the air to do just this, but it fails. George deserves credit for realizing this instantly and still rising for an actual shot, but Holiday deserves just as much for managing to both contest the shot well and avoid intruding on George’s landing space, which his right leg definitely attempted to extend.

More often than not, Holiday’s instincts are spot-on in getting him into the air at the perfect moment. It is often easy to tell when a shooter or even an entire offense is in rhythm, and the same can be said for excellence on the other end:

Like a base stealer breaking for second on the pitcher’s first move towards the plate, Holiday leaps right when he knows for sure George is too. Contesting across the body rather than right at it gives him a chance to deflect the initial pass and get a hand in the face of the shooter with little danger of fouling.

The final highlighted clip may very well be the most unremarkable of them all, but that is precisely because of the 47-plus minutes of grinding that Holiday had already done to that point. The game was essentially over, but George pulls up out of rhythm and launches one more shot before the final horn sounds. It was the most space he had on a three-point attempt all game, yet it never had a prayer:

It takes a combination of team effort and ability to shut down a team that can run George and Russell Westbrook out on the court at the same time. The Thunder still finished with 122 points, but once the second half of the game began, the Pelicans always had five players on the court who were engaged and eager to rise to the occasion.

What cannot be taken for granted throughout the final 23 games of this season is that no matter the opponent or the score, Jrue Holiday is going to leave everything he’s got on the defensive side of the court. It just so happens that that “everything” includes all of the tools required to defend at an elite level. This is his team now, and we can only hope that the rest of his teammates will continue to take note and follow suit.