As Jrue Holiday hits career points milestone, the only thing that matters is winning

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BOSTON — Jrue Holiday was getting a standing ovation, but he had no idea why.

“When they started cheering. I heard my name a little bit, so I figured I did something wrong,” Holiday said.

The defensive maven had surpassed 15,000 career points in the middle of Boston’s 114-98 win over the New York Knicks to move to 8-2 on the season, knocking on the door of entering the top 150 in NBA history. He’ll pass Sam Jones at some point this year and has his coach Sam Cassell in his sights soon after that.

It must be a thrilling achievement to see himself climbing the ranks and surpassing iconic names. So what means the most in his long list of career accomplishments?

“Winning games. That’s the only one, to be completely honest,” Holiday said. “It’s cool to get those accolades, I won’t lie, but I think the biggest one is winning.”

This is a classic Jrue Holiday answer, someone who seems to not care at all about any column in the box score except for the score. He wants to win, he doesn’t care how he gets there, and he isn’t happy until it’s over.

So this mildly monumental occasion seemed like a big whatever for Holiday, a nice little aw-shucks before cracking out the iPad to study film for Philly in 48 hours.

The Celtics brought him in to make this team both steady and unpredictable. He is asteroid-solid on defense, as comparing him to a rock would be just disrespectful. He shoots when you expect him to pass and passes when you expect him to shoot. It’s apparent that he is still trying to figure out how he fits with this team and everyone from Joe Mazzulla to Jayson Tatum is learning how to bring the best out of Holiday.

It starts with putting him into uncharted waters on defense.

The Celtics have gone against some of the league’s most formidable scoring bigs over the past week-plus and Holiday has gotten the assignment every time. Mazzulla made a point recently to say that Derrick White is more the point guard while Holiday is a combo guard, but Holiday is really just a combo human.

With the way he’s been guarding post-up bigs and is serving as the roll man on a lot of the Celtics’ crunchtime offense, Holiday has basically been a power-point forward so far this year. He is big and small. It’s not a novel concept in Boston, where Marcus Smart invented the stretch-six position.

The difference is Holiday is learning how to do this on the fly and is making an early case for defensive player of the year. But more importantly, all of these puzzles Mazzulla throws his way each night are keeping his mind active as he tries to figure out how he meshes with the team.

“Definitely keeps me engaged and then it’s something new,” said Holiday, who has never quite had to guard bigs full-time at the rate he is now. “It’s a challenge to be able to go out there at 6-4, 6-5, playing a 6-9 dude. It’s fun to go out there and guard like that.”

When Holiday was then asked if he’s ever been the primary cover on Joel Embiid before last Wednesday’s loss in Philly, Holiday was genuinely racking his brain trying to remember.

“When he dribbles the ball, I’m already down there, so maybe I can poke at it a little bit,” Holiday said. “I think I’m strong enough just not to get backed down and dunked in the basket. Yeah, I don’t know. Great question.”

That was on display again guarding Julius Randle, who throws a shoulder into the defender more than just about anyone else in the game. But Holiday could absorb the contact, then get crafty if Randle got his way.

While Randle did slip by him for a cut in the second half and hit a couple of shots early, Holiday kept him at bay most of the time. Then when Holiday was off him, the Celtics guard/big/everything was a roaming help defender in constant motion. It bit them a few times when Quentin Grimes capitalized when Holiday helped off him, but Holiday always seemed to figure it out.

Much like his stretch-six predecessor, Holiday spends the game solving a defensive riddle, always managing to be in two places at once.

“And so like that’s the beauty of him, is he has the ability to affect the game in so many ways,” Mazzulla said. “And he can be underappreciated at times because of being able to do stuff like that, but I see him thriving in kind of the role that we have him in as far as just letting him loose and empowering him to have different matchups, defensively be able to make plays when he wants to, and on the offensive end, using him in a couple of different areas.”

The Celtics don’t need Holiday to carry the scoring burden. Mazzulla can just watch Tatum start the game 0-for-6 from deep and know there’s a 70 percent chance he’s then going 5-for-6 and hitting a few absurd sidestep isolation pull-ups in crunchtime.

There are other guys on this team who can handle that. The Celtics need someone who loves the fight and wants to grind out a victory.

“If you get into a fight, and you don’t have any bruises, that’s called bullying. And if you get into a fight and you have some, that’s a real fight. And so I enjoy those,” Mazzulla said. “I love games like this, because (it’s) going to reveal who we are, what we’ve been doing, and where we need to get better.”

Honoring a behind-the-scenes Celtics icon

Heather Walker is a name most fans didn’t know throughout her time with the franchise, but she played a significant role in shaping the Celtics experience as the franchise’s VP Public Relations. When she was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma in July 2021, she turned her personal battle against cancer into the Move4Heather mission which has raised more than $700,000 for glioblastoma research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Walker passed away on April 26, leaving behind a legacy of illuminating the stories that truly matter around this franchise and being that source of boundless energy everywhere she went. She not only was a conduit for those who wanted to tell stories about the fascinating people who make up the Celtics, but she was a true friend who made you look forward to coming to work every day.

That’s why the Celtics found the perfect way to honor her, naming the press work space at the Auerbach Center as the Heather Walker Media Center on Monday morning.

One of the best parts of every day around the Celtics was getting to run into Heather and make some sarcastic joke or just see her radiant smile. Now as the media walks down to the court for every practice, it’ll pass by a gallery of her doing what she did best: fill the room with joy.

(Photo: David Butler II / USA Today)

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