PHILADELPHIA — The Celtics know that over the course of this long season there will be nights when they are undermanned. Wednesday was the first significant example, with stars Kristaps Porzingis and Jaylen Brown sidelined.
The timing was not great considering Boston was on the road against the rival 76ers, who beat them on this floor one week earlier and have looked like one of the best teams in the NBA.
As Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla contemplated options he kept coming back to veteran point guard Jrue Holiday, who was acquired in a trade in September after three excellent seasons with the Bucks. Milwaukee was always led by former MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he was not available every night.
“I told [Holiday] 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.
Holiday seemed to absorb the message. He has often deferred to the other stars over the past few weeks, feeling his way through a new system with new teammates. But he was assertive at the start Wednesday.
Two minutes in, he backed his defender down with a forceful post-up and scored. Then he added a driving layup, cut through the lane and received a pass from Al Horford for another layup, leaked out for a dunk after a steal, and came up with a steal before coasting in for another layup.
In just 10 minutes, Holiday had registered five baskets in the paint and helped Boston roar to a 30-18 lead that eventually turned into a 117-107 win, its fourth in a row. Entering the night, he hadn’t made more than seven shots in a game this season.
Holiday finished with 18 points, a game-high 10 rebounds and 3 assists. While the extra output was nice, it was especially notable because it was an example of how Mazzulla has put his full trust in the 33-year-old guard who as of a few weeks ago had not even found a permanent residence in Boston.
“He’s been in the league a long time, so he’s guarded everybody,” Mazzulla said. “He’s played against every coach, every team. He’s got great instincts on player profiles, small details on certain plays on how he’s guarded them.”
The Celtics are surrendering just 102.7 points per 100 possessions with Holiday on the court, tied with Tatum for the best defensive rating on the team. When the Celtics visited the 76ers last week, Mazzulla tasked the 6-foot-4 guard with guarding the 7-foot center and reigning MVP Joel Embiid. Even though Philadelphia won, Holiday held his ground and Embiid admitted afterward that he had been a nuisance.
When the Celtics bothered the Knicks with a full-court press, with some half-court zone sets spliced in, Mazzulla mostly put Holiday in control of the timing of these attacks.
“I tell [Mazzulla] what I see and we go from there, if we want to go zone or are switching or are staying connected to our man, whatever it is,” Holiday said. “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 … We really have to be in tune with the game.”
Even though Holiday is a five-time All-Defense selection, he said no coach has ever given him as much of a voice and as much responsibility as Mazzulla has over the season’s first month. For Mazzulla, it is partly because he has the ultimate trust in Holiday, and partly because he finds value in their constant dialogue.
“With him it’s more about, where are we at defensively? What can we do to change the flow or rhythm of the game?” Mazzulla said. “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. He and Derrick [White] have a special gift of when they’re playing really hard, they inspire others to play harder.”
On Wednesday, after Holiday had done a bit of everything to help finish off the 76ers, Philadelphia’s Robert Covington lined up a 3-pointer with his team down by 10 with just 30 seconds left. The game was over. Many players would simply cede the shot and head to the showers. But Holiday sprinted over and blocked the attempt, putting his final imprint on this night in which Mazzulla had asked him to do just a bit more.