By Matt Citak
Heading into the playoff matchup between the six-seed New Orleans Pelicans and three-seed Portland Trail Blazers, several players looked as though they could take over the series.
Over the last few seasons, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has emerged as one of the most prolific scorers in the NBA, averaging over 25.0 points per game for the last three seasons. The 6-foot-3 guard elevated his game to another level in the second half of this season, helping Portland climb the Western Conference standings and finish with the conference’s three-seed.
Lillard did not do it alone. Backcourt partner CJ McCollum has blossomed into a talented shooter, averaging over 20.5 points for the third consecutive season. These two Portland guards combine to form a powerful one-two punch.
However, through the first two games of the postseason, the Trail Blazers’ backcourt has not been able to overcome the performance of one of the Pelicans’ best players.
And I don’t mean Anthony Davis.
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Davis has been enjoying the greatest season of his six-year NBA career. He averaged 28.1 points, 11.1 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks while shooting 53.4 percent from the field and a career-best 34.0 percent from the three-point line in 75 games this year. Davis’s on-court success has put him in the MVP conversation, albeit a step below James Harden and LeBron James.
Based on the regular season, it is no surprise that Davis is averaging 28.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocks in the series so far. He’s been a force inside, wreaking havoc in the paint on both ends of the court. But this is what we have come to expect from “The Brow.”
What’s been more shocking, and frankly has played the biggest role in New Orleans jumping out to an early 2-0 lead in the series, is the unexpected performance of Jrue Holiday.
Despite several bumps in the road throughout his first few years in New Orleans, Holiday had himself a career-year this season. The 6-foot-4 point guard shot a career-best 49.4 percent from the field in the regular season, which led to a career-high 19.0 points per game.
But during the first two games of the postseason, both played in Portland, Holiday has looked like an absolute superstar.
To start the playoffs, Holiday averaged 27.0 points on 54.5 percent shooting from the field, along with 5.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds, leading New Orleans to two straight victories. But it was his play on the defensive side that truly elevated the Pelicans.
When defending Lillard during Tuesday’s Game 2, Holiday held the star guard in check, restricting Lillard to 0-for-4 shooting, while forcing two turnovers. Holiday’s defensive prowess goes beyond his play on Lillard. As a team, the Trail Blazers are shooting a mere 25 percent (6-for-24) during this series when guarded by Holiday.
The 27-year-old guard has done a little bit of everything in the first two games. He’s hustling for and winning crucial loose balls. He’s blocking shots. He’s stealing passes.
While his stellar overall play may come as a surprise to some, it does not for those who have been closely watching Holiday all season.
Let’s look at some stats that don’t normally make the box score each game. Holiday finished tied for fifth in the league in loose balls recovered per game with 1.6. He ranked seventh in the number of deflections caused per game, showing his active hands on defense. He had 64 blocked shots on the season, the highest total of any player standing 6-foot-5 or shorter. Finally, he ranks at the very top of the league among starting guards in defensive efficiency in guarding pick-and-roll ball handlers.
The numbers actually show that Holiday has been performing extremely well all season. Maybe he’s been flying under the radar because of the bigger names on the Pelicans roster (Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo to name a few). Maybe it’s because New Orleans hasn’t been a true force in the Western Conference in a decade. Who knows?
Whatever the reason, Holiday’s success through the first two games of the postseason places him firmly on Portland’s radar. And after dropping those first two games at home, the Trail Blazers are sure to focus on limiting Holiday when these two teams take the court in New Orleans on Thursday.
With the six-seed Pelicans up 2-0, Jrue Holiday wouldn’t have it any other way.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.