It was the kind of night the New Orleans Pelicans pictured this summer.
When general manager Dell Demps re-signed Jrue Holiday to a five-year, $126 million contract this offseason, he envisioned the type of display Holiday unleashed in a 122-118 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Thursday night: 34 points, 11 assists, five rebounds.
The guard emerged from his sleepy start to the season, attacking the basket with zeal, routinely putting defenders on their heels and tallying season-bests in scoring and assists.
More important, Holiday punished the Raptors defense for shading double-teams onto either DeMarcus Cousins or Anthony Davis, taking advantage of dribble-drive lanes to the hoop and open angles to find unguarded teammates. It served as a warning to future opponents: Simply neutralizing the pair of All-Star big men isn’t enough to derail the Pelicans offense entirely.
“Jrue played incredible (Thursday),” Cousins said. “It sucks that we couldn’t give him the help that he deserved tonight and to help pull out this win. He had a huge night, he carried us the entire night, and like I said, it just sucks that we couldn’t be a supporting cast for him.”
While the loss snapped a four-game road winning streak and pulled the Pelicans back down to a 6-6 record, Holiday’s inspired outing is a sign New Orleans’ two-headed monster can sprout a third when necessary. His scoring spark is needed most when facing frontcourt-heavy teams who can play big, or opponents who opt to abandon Pelicans guards to load up on the interior.
Another dose of evidence will be provided at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Smoothie King Center, where the Pelicans host the Los Angeles Clippers and their pair of frontcourt stars, forward Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan.
It could serve as an important proving ground for Holiday to show Thursday’s outburst was more than a stroke of good fortune or the result of a favorable matchup.
“Well we have to understand if Jrue Holiday was going great, one of (Davis or Cousins’) shots are going to be down,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “Jrue was playing great, and they had done a pretty good job on AD. One of the things that (Toronto was) not going to let our big guys do is just isolate them and beat them.
“They did a lot of double-teaming and trapping the post and things like that, so it’s not that we didn’t go to them or try to go to them. Jrue had it going early, so we went to Jrue a lot.”
Holiday’s offensive contribution can alter the Pelicans’ complexion. On nights when Davis or Cousins aren’t reaching their nearly 30-point averages, the Pelicans offense isn’t rudderless.
Davis and Cousins converted just 14 of 38 shots Thursday night, combining for 38 points, a notable dropoff from their typical efficient production. Yet New Orleans remained firmly in contention throughout a road game against a playoff team.
The Pelicans took no solace in defeat because of an array of defensive breakdowns, but the blueprint for long-term success and a postseason bid is more reliant on a reliable third star than anything else.
Holiday proved he’s capable of providing that punch and lessening the burden on the Pelicans’ pair of All-Stars, who are both carrying usage rates ranked among the NBA’s top 30.
“I only had 14 shots, and when I don’t have my shot going I try and create other ways to help the team,” Davis said. “Just diving hard to the basket opened up a lot for our shooters, and they were able to make shots. That’s really it and Jrue had it going too, so we were trying to feed the hot hand."