Jrue Holiday drives to the basket. (Getty Images)
The second round hasn't been especially kind to Jrue Holiday. After averaging a sterling 18.2 points per game in the Philadelphia 76ers' first-round win over the Chicago Bulls, he's had a rougher go of it in Round 2, averaging just 12.4 points a night on 43.4 percent shooting against the Boston Celtics. He's far from the only Sixer to struggle — his teammates are shooting a combined 41.7 percent from the floor in the series, which Boston leads 3-2 and can close out in Philly in a pivotal Game 6 on Wednesday night — but what's made Holiday's play particularly noteworthy of late is its passivity.
After hitting three of the first four shots he took during Monday's Game 5 and helping Philadelphia jump out to a 27-23 lead after the first quarter, Holiday seemed to recede from view, attempting just two shots in the rest of the game and finishing with a quiet 10 points in Boston's 101-85 win. That Holiday, the team's leading postseason scorer at 15.5 points per game, pulled back when he seemed to have it going gave Doug Collins cause for concern; as the Sixers' head coach told John N. Mitchell of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the team needs more offensive aggression from its lead guard and leading scorer.
"He's our leading scorer," Collins said after a team film session Tuesday at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "[...] I've got to have him in the mode of looking to shoot the ball."
In a perfect world for the Sixers, Holiday plays Wednesday night the way he did in Game 2 of the Chicago series, when he finished with 26 points and six assists in a 109-92 rout.
"I have to be more aggressive looking for my shot," Holiday said.
Perhaps too often, Holiday exhibits a reluctance to take over games. He has a pure point guard's mind-set in that he would rather set up his teammates — something Boston guard Rajon Rondo, his counterpart, could very well be the best in the league at doing.
It's true that Holiday can look tentative at times, and that hesitance can spell problems for a Philadelphia team not blessed with very many players who excel at creating good looks, whether for themselves or others. But it's worth noting that it's not exactly as if the Sixers become a high-flying, explosive winning machine when Holiday starts looking for his own offense.
He's scored 20 or more points 12 times during this regular season and postseason, with Philly going 7-5 in those games (2-0 in the playoffs). Setting aside 20 as a somewhat arbitrary figure, Holiday has either led the 76ers in scoring or tied with a teammate for the team-high in points in 21 games this season, with Philly going 11-10 in those games (2-1 in the playoffs). Sure, they've won more than they've lost when the third-year guard out of UCLA has gone score-first, but not as frequently as when he's notched six or more assists in a game (16-10 in 26 games, 3-2 in the playoffs).
That said, the issue from Collins' perspective seems to be less about scoring than it is about the very act of getting the shots up. More from Mitchell:
"I thought there were a couple of times where he penetrated looking to pass that I would rather he had shot the ball," Collins said. "I mean, at least it gives us a chance to offensive-rebound the ball. To get the ball up there on the rim, it at least gives us a chance. He knows I need him to think 'score' because we bleed sometimes out there to get a hoop. I need him to get to that basket."
And that's the biggest key. If Holiday can beat his man (mostly Rondo) and penetrate the lane against a Celtics team without fearsome shot-blockers regularly patrolling the paint (unless Greg Stiemsma gets really heavy minutes, which he hasn't for most of this postseason), then the point guard stands a good chance of something positive happening. He could:
• Get to the bucket for a high-percentage look himself;
• Force a Boston big to rotate to plug the gap, opening up his own post men for the kinds of dives and dump-offs that enabled Brandon Bass to feast for the Celtics in Game 5;
• Force Boston's wings to sag toward him to try to alter his approach, creating more opportunities to cut or more open looks for Philly's cold-shooting wings; or
• Get fouled and head to the free-throw line, where he hit better than 78 percent of his attempts this season.
Generally speaking, a successful Holiday attack off the bounce can result in more good things than a Holiday jumper or ball swing. The Sixers reaped the benefits of that approach during their six-game opening-round win over the Bulls, which saw Holiday attempt 24 shots at the rim, converting 14, according to Hoopdata's shot-location statistics, and take 25 free throws, hitting 21 of them to pace Philadelphia to a first-round upset.
Things have been a bit different against the C's, though. While Holiday's at-the-rim pace is about the same against Boston — he's taken 20 attempts through five games, though he's hit just nine — Holiday has spent more time outside over the past three games, taking just eight shots at the tin in Games 3, 4 and 5 combined after 12 such attempts in the series' first two contests.
His predilection toward jumpers has meant fewer trips to the line — just five since the start of Game 3, including an oh-fer in Game 5, and only seven total for the series — and a frequent struggle to get anything going for his teammates in half-court situations. If he's not getting to the rim or getting to the line, unless they get a ton of fast-break points (as they did in Game 4), the Sixers will have a tough time winning.
In a sense, then, while no one would confuse the two players' statures or finishing abilities, what Collins wants out of Holiday is what so many fans and observers have long demanded out of LeBron James — attack, attack, attack, and let the chips fall where they may. Force the defense to make decisions and then counter them, or, if they're a step slow, well, make them pay for that at the rim.
It's a tough, often thankless task — getting whacked around under the basket doesn't feel so great if the layups don't fall or your teammates miss those baseline jumpers — but unless one of his teammates is able to get off the schneid on his own, it might be a job Holiday has to do to keep his Sixers alive and force a Game 7.
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