Jrue Holiday sat at a dais on the sixth floor of the Auerbach Center on Wednesday afternoon and started answering a question about his first Celtics practice.
He said he was a bit nervous, but that he could instantly feel the team’s hunger. He said coach Joe Mazzulla lost his voice from barking instructions. He said the team’s competitive fire was palpable.
As Holiday was completing his thought, team co-owner Wyc Grousbeck interrupted.
“If you were nervous, you were pouncing on guys,” Grousbeck said. “I was sitting 5 feet away as if I’m courtside. You were playing five-on-five and you were just like going to envelop them immediately. You’re 6 foot 5. It’s really something to watch this guy play.”
Holiday sheepishly told Grousbeck he appreciated the compliment, and Grousbeck said that if that’s how Holiday plays when he’s nervous, he’s eager to see day two. Then co-owner Steve Pagliuca shared his own instant memory from this suddenly memorable practice that concluded an hour or so earlier.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen Jaylen Brown be stopped going to the hoop with a full head of steam, and he just ran right into Jrue,” Pagliuca said. “And that was it. It was incredible. One of the most incredible things I’ve seen in practice.”
Holiday once again politely and appreciatively tried to deflect the praise for simply playing hard, but on this day there was no hiding the franchise’s excitement about its latest big-name acquisition.
Pagliuca said Celtics legend Paul Pierce, another observer Wednesday, told him he had never seen such a long, intense session. Grousbeck said the day reminded him of the first practice after Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett joined the team in 2007, when something just felt different. President of basketball operations Brad Stevens gushed about how Holiday had smothered assistant coach Phil Pressey in a drill.
“That made me so happy,” Stevens said.
Over the past decade there have been plenty of these high-profile introductions. Al Horford. Kyrie Irving. Gordon Hayward. Kemba Walker. Kristaps Porzingis. Thus far, none have led to a championship.
And it remains to be seen whether this time will be different. But the enthusiasm and energy appears to be as high as ever, with Holiday and Porzingis joining All-NBA talents Jayson Tatum and Brown to form another championship favorite.
But Holiday, who helped the Bucks to the 2021 title after being acquired from the Pelicans that season, is the only player on this roster who has actually won a title.
“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s harder than everything you’ve ever done before. You’re going to be tired, exhausted, but it’s about who has the mental toughness, who can play through and make plays, obviously at the end of games in the series, and who’s the most connected. The team that wants it the most will go after it and get it.”
Milwaukee had the NBA’s best record last season and was just two years removed from that championship, with its core still intact. It did not figure to be in a rush to trade an All-Star point guard.
But then Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard became available, and everything changed, inadvertently creating a big opportunity for the Celtics. In order to acquire Lillard last Wednesday, the Bucks dealt Holiday to Portland, which made it clear it did not intend to keep the 33-year-old. The Celtics were ready.
“We’ve really loved him since he was in New Orleans and watched him play,” Pagliuca said. “So the directive was: Do everything we can do to get him here, because he could be a key piece of a championship team.”
Boston was among a large group of teams that pursued Holiday, and among a smaller group on his list of preferred destinations.
“Before I got traded, it was just kind of like, ‘Where am I going to land?’” Holiday said. “I had hopes of being here, and sometimes you don’t want to get your hopes up, just because you can get your heart broken that way.”
But this was no pipedream. On Sunday, the Celtics agreed to send center Robert Williams, guard Malcolm Brogdon, and two future first-round picks to Portland for Holiday. That same day, Holiday said, Mazzulla started sending him clips of pick-and-roll coverages and offensive sets.
“From the beginning, (Mazzulla’s) told me my role is to do everything,” Holiday said. “Do everything, be all over the floor defensively, be able to control situations offensively, situations to calm us down and get good shots toward the end of games. But I think when it comes down to it, it’s about winning. It’s about keeping this culture of winning and Joe’s a part of that and the way he’s communicated with me has been awesome.”
Holiday is from Los Angeles and was a Lakers fan as a child. He figures some of his family members don’t love this new green hue. But he said he has admired this franchise, its rowdy fan base, and its relentless style of play for years.
He said that he enjoyed getting his first run alongside Brown and Tatum on Wednesday, and he is already looking at ways he can help the stars continue their ascensions.
“I’m really just here to serve,” Holiday said. “I’m here to do really well next to everybody on the court. But I think for the most part, it’s about winning and helping my teammates be as good as they can.”