Jrue Holiday dribbled upcourt in rhythm, and his 3-point shot was true. He blew by a defender and finished at the rim. He sank a step-back jumper; he finished a tough runner through contact.
This was all Monday night against the Houston Rockets, but it could have been three seasons ago. The Pelicans point guard was showing signs of his Philadelphia career-year form in a 32-point, nine-assist performance in a 112-111 loss.
“I don’t know if I’m feeling that way,” Holiday said, flashing back to his 2013 All-Star season. “But I am feeling really, really good.”
Held back early this season as he recovered from a stress reaction in his right leg — Holiday played with a minutes restriction and a ban on back-to-back games until the new year — the seventh-year guard is rounding into form for New Orleans.
That was never more apparent than on Monday, when, with forward Anthony Davis out with a concussion and guard Tyreke Evans sitting with knee pain, he pulled the Pelicans back from the brink of a blowout in a narrow loss to Houston.
Holiday hit 13 of 21 shots against the Rockets, including 4-of-5 on 3-pointers. He assisted on 39 percent of his teammates’ field goals.
And afterward, he felt “pretty good” — his legs more tired than his lungs, he said — after playing a season-high-tying 36 minutes, a number his eyes went to first when he glanced at a postgame boxscore in the locker room.
“I don’t really look at the time or check up on the time (during the game),” Holiday said. “That’s not really for me to worry about. I just go out there and play.”
If you check up on the time, though, you’ll see that Holiday’s has gradually increased, as was the Pelicans’ preseason plan.
In 14 games as a starter this season, Holiday averaged 21.7 minutes. But as the minutes restriction lightened, then disappeared, that number began to climb. In 24 games since moving into a reserve role, he’s averaging 27.4 minutes.
Holiday has played at least 27 minutes in 10 of the Pelicans’ past 13 games, and at least 30 in four of those. He played 25 or more minutes twice in New Orleans’ first 13 games.
That slow, steady increase has worked according to plan, said Holiday, who’s averaging 25.3 minutes for the season.
“I think it helped me mentally, for one, preparing mentally to feel good,” Holiday said. “Not to second-guess myself if I’m making a cut or doing a move, especially when it comes to the point where I’m playing back-to-back and playing a lot of minutes. And physically, I do feel really good right now.”
He’s playing like it, averaging 15.6 points, 5.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game over the past 24 games, a span in which the Pelicans are 12-12.
Those numbers and Monday’s game are reminiscent of Holiday’s peak season in Philadelphia, when he averaged career highs in points (17.7) and assists (eight) for a team that finished four games out of a playoff spot.
Holiday has at times this season looked like the player coach Alvin Gentry projected him to be in the preseason, when Gentry said Holiday could run New Orleans’ pace-and-space offense at the high level players like Steve Nash and Steph Curry have at other stops.
“I still think that he’s got a big jump that he can make,” Gentry said. “I think he’s been very good at (the offense), but I think he could be elite at it. It still takes a little bit of time, but I think he’s got a handle on it altogether.”
It helps that Holiday has looked healthy through the wear and tear of games. He’s “been good down the stretch,” Gentry said, averaging more minutes, points, rebounds and assists in second halves than first.
And he’s emerged as one of the Pelicans’ best perimeter defenders.
“When he’s locked in, he can guard anyone,” Gentry said.
Lately, Holiday’s been locked in.
And he figures being locked into a regimented recovery timetable played a part in that. If he’s able to turn back the time to his All-Star production, it might well be because the Pelicans watched the clock so closely to start the season.
“I think the way that we’ve taken it has been great for me personally,” Holiday said. “So all I can do is go back out there and give back to my team.”