“I had night shift,” he said. “That means my wife got to sleep. I was up with the baby, which was cool.”
Though fully healthy to start a season for the first time in two years, Holiday spent the past three months prioritizing his family life, moving to the Raleigh, North Carolina, area in order to help care for his wife, Lauren, a former international soccer player, as she recovers from brain surgery. He was also caring for the couple’s first child, born weeks before the procedure.
He has kept up with the team from afar. The 26-year-old said he usually prefers to unplug from the rest of the NBA during the season -- the latest season of “Game of Thrones” is awaiting him -- but he was tuned in to League Pass while waiting out his wife's recovery. He has maintained conditioning, too, working out with a strength and conditioning coach and, more recently, Pelicans assistant Jamelle McMillan.
Holiday said he felt great entering his season debut, but the Pelicans have made a concerted effort to slowly bring Holiday back up to game speed, including limiting his minutes, which left expectations for the former All-Star tough to pin down, even for Holiday and those closest to him.
“I didn’t know what to expect, really,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said.
Holiday may have exceeded any and all: In 23 minutes off the bench, the eight-year veteran finished with 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting, seven assists, two rebounds a steal and a block, as the Pelicans ran over the Portland Trail Blazers 113-101 at Smoothie King Center.
“I think I did pretty well,” Holiday said, with a knowing nod.
He’ll also admit that he wasn’t as confident from the jump.
Holiday, who played in goggles to shield his surgically repaired right orbital bone, checked in with 4 minutes, 8 seconds to play in the first quarter and dished out an assist to Terrence Jones on his first offensive possession. But he missed a floater the next time down. He drew a foul on the next but missed the first free throw.
The second went in and the relief was apparent. Holiday pumped both of his fists at the line before retreating back on defense.
“The first floater, I missed. I thought it was good, and from there I thought I’d be off,” he said. “I missed the first free throw, and missing the first end of a free throw kind of sometimes messes with you. It can get in your head. So when that second free throw went in, it felt pretty good.”
The Pelicans looked good with him.
Anthony Davis continued his destruction of NBA defenses, shooting 13-for-16 after a 1-for-6 start to finish with 38 points, nine rebounds, six assists, four blocks and two steals. But for the first time, the entire offense flowed like an instrument finally in tune. As a team, the Pelicans finished with season-high percentages from the field (54.9) and behind the 3-point line (37.5) and tied for their most assists (31).
“As far as flow and what we were trying to do, it was probably the best our offense has looked,” Gentry said. “I just thought everything had a much better flow to it than we’ve had. We did a good job of moving the basketball. We had 20 assists at the half, and to me that’s saying we’re moving the basketball and finding the open people.”
The difference was obvious: Holiday.
“There’s a confidence level that we have when he’s on the floor,” Gentry said. “I think what he is, is he’s a very unselfish player. I think everyone feeds off that. He’s willing to pass up shots and get guys better shots, and I think it’s just natural for everyone else to do that.”
Holiday’s blueprint for success was simple.
“AD makes it easy,” he said, with Davis listening from behind a thicket of reporters. “All you have to do is pass it to him.”
“Aw, stop it,” Davis called out from the back.
“And from there,” Holiday said, without missing a beat, “you just have to play off him.”
Four of Holiday’s assists went to Davis, with the other three going to the Pelicans’ other offensively gifted power forward, Jones. Coincidence or not, the only three shots Davis missed after Holiday first checked in came on open 3-point looks.
“He’s instant offense,” Davis said.
“Dude’s crafty,” said Tim Frazier, who finished with 12 points, eight assists and several snarls at his former beloved Trail Blazers teammates. “I was sitting on the bench looking, and I’m like, ‘Man, he’s going in there too slow.’ But he’s so crafty and able to finish. I think it’s such a change of pace from what I am, which is full-go speed. I need to get some of the stuff from his game.”
Holiday hadn’t yet spoken to his wife by the time he met with the media after the game. But he did get a glimpse at his newest, biggest fan ahead of his debut.
“She texted me before the game,” he said. “My daughter’s wearing a nice Jrue Holiday jersey.”
For the first time all season, everyone associated with the Pelicans walked away from a game night a winner.