John Tomase

Jrue Holiday continues to validate Smart trade as Celtics eye title

The steady veteran has given the Celtics exactly what they need this postseason.

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Call it one of those moments you file away.

In Game 5 of the 2022 Eastern Conference semifinals, the Celtics pulled one of their familiar disintegrating acts. The game is best remembered for Bobby Portis' put-back of a missed free throw in the final 15 seconds to give Milwaukee an improbable lead.

But it's what happened next that registered in the bigger picture. The C's ran a broken final play that ended with Marcus Smart reluctantly driving baseline. Milwaukee's Jrue Holiday swooped in to swat his layup from behind, then leapt out of bounds and fired the ball off Smart's body to secure the victory.

If you had asked a Celtics fan which player you'd rather have, most would've said Smart because we love our own, even though Holiday had already made an All-Star team, been named All-Defense four times, and most importantly, won a title. We embraced Smart's intangibles, hustle, and all-out style, but in that moment I remember thinking, "Huh. Is Holiday just a better version of the same player?"

The Celtics proceeded to win the series because Jayson Tatum went off in Game 6 and Grant Williams couldn't miss in Game 7, but it was hardly Holiday's fault. He put up 21-6-6 numbers while wreaking havoc on Boston's inept ball-handling with 17 steals. With Kris Middleton sidelined, the Bucks just couldn't match the Celtics' depth and Boston eventually reached the NBA Finals.

That's where the sheer brilliance of Steph Curry overwhelmed them. Smart did not cover himself in glory, pouting on the sideline while the reserves ran the Warriors off the court in Game 1, and then shooting 4 for 12 in Golden State's Game 6 clincher. The Defensive Player of the Year had no answer for Curry, the Finals MVP who put up over 31 a game.

That series and the season that followed convinced Brad Stevens the Celtics needed a makeover. They had exhausted that iteration of the roster, Smart too mercurial to deliver on a nightly basis. So Stevens boldly shipped out Smart and brought in Holiday.

They might just raise Banner 18 as a result.

Like the high-drama friend whose dramatics only become evident after they move, it's now clear how little the Celtics miss Smart. He hustled and played great defense, but so does Holiday. Where Smart needed to be considered part of a Big Three with superstars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown – muscling his way onto a Sports Illustrated cover in front of them – Holiday has checked his ego since Day 1.

Brad Stevens talks about re-signing Jrue Holiday to a contract extension recently, and what he means to the long-term future of the Celtics

During that 2022 series, for instance, Holiday took 50 3-pointers, because the Bucks lacked reliable offense beyond Giannis Antetokounmpo. During Milwaukee's 2021 title run, Holiday topped 20 points eight times while constantly handling the ball. He dished out 24 assists in the last two games of the Finals vs. the Suns, including the breathtaking alley-oop to Antetokounmpo that clinched Game 5.

In Boston, he has played his supporting role without complaint, the ideal complement to backcourt-mate Derrick White, another no-nonsense ballhawk content to operate in the shadow of the Jays.

Whereas Smart used to remind his team to stay calm by theatrically lowering his palms – "Look, world, I'm a leader!" – Holiday exudes composure through his actions. He's never out of control, he only quietly complains to the refs, and the next time he makes a show of getting in a teammate's face or kicking head coach Joe Mazzulla out of the huddle so he can run a timeout will be the first. I don't believe he's ever thrown a chair at anyone, either.

He has been exactly what the Celtics needed in the last two games vs. the Cavaliers, including Monday's surprisingly hard-fought Game 4 victory that pushed Cleveland to the brink, making 13 of his last 21 shots. Whereas Smart frequently indulged his hero fantasies, Holiday picks his spots. When the Celtics start spinning out of control offensively, a Holiday post-up can reset them. He's opportunistic with pull-up 3-pointers, and he remains deadly from the corner.

A different player with his resume might resent taking only 10 shots a game, but Holiday not only embraces the role, he just agreed to a four-year, $135 million extension.

It turns out he's pretty much everything Smart was on the floor, plus a whole bunch of stuff he wasn't. He's a bringer of calm, whereas Smart, despite his best intentions, tended to be an agent of chaos. There never should've been a debate in the first place, because there's no question which one is better for the Celtics.

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