The MRI scan revealed what the Pelicans feared.
Jrue Holiday was not only playing through pain, they needed to sideline him for the first time this season. But, when coach Alvin Gentry walked out of his office few hours later, he was forced to do a double take.
“After having the abdominal strain pointed out pretty clearly on the MRI, he came to practice, ready to go to practice,” Gentry said about his interaction on March 7. “He didn’t think anything of it at all, even though it must have been extremely painful. He put on his practice gear and was just stretching out there, ready to go.
“I had to tell him, ‘You know you can’t practice. You’re actually hurt.’ And he just said, ‘Oh. I mean, I can get through it.’ And those are the kinds of things that as a coach make you appreciate him so much. They talk about coach’s players, and he is the ultimate coach’s player. He always wants to be out there, and he always gives everything he has.”
It’s emblematic of Holiday’s approach.
The New Orleans Pelicans will have to learn to play without their leader.
He yearns to compete and relishes the challenge. On countless occasions this season, Gentry has rattled off the wide-ranging list of responsibilities he’s placed on his guard and cackled over its absurdity.
“Every night it’s crazy what we have asked him to do,” Gentry said. “Guard the opponent’s best player. Score 20 points. Get 10 assists. Be our leader. A lot of guys would be burned out at best by that and some would just quit. He’s never done anything but do everything he could to win.”
Yes, Holiday has been an All-Star and a standout player in the league.
But, even if he doesn’t play again this season (a distinct possibility) it was the most productive year of his career, and the biggest difference-maker was simply his ability to compete at his desired level for longer.
Alvin Gentry lost his train of thought for a second.
Before the All-Star break (and the Pelicans’ decision to limit his playing time) not only did Holiday lead the NBA in minutes played, he also travelled a league-most 2.82 miles per game, while carrying the equally exhausting task of defending the opponent’s best perimeter scorer.
The added endurance isn’t a coincidence.
“I’ve always tried to play this way, and I think a lot goes into it, but nutrition definitely helps,” Holiday said. "It’s something I slept on before. Because at 21 or 22 years old you think you can kind of get away with anything, right? I do think there are supplements like Thorne, which I take, which has really helped me in a way I never thought about before but has done a lot for me.
“To be able to incorporate that and find what works for me has changed a lot for me. I feel like I’ve played a lot of minutes and a lot of games, so to be able to withstand that takes a lot more than just showing up and trying hard.”
And he’s made the most of the additional stamina. Ask Pelicans’ coaches, teammates or opponents about Holiday’s effort-level and the refrain coming back is nearly unanimous.
"No one goes harder than him,” Solomon Hill said. “Nobody.”
He can’t pinpoint the exact motivation for it, but Holiday always knows something will allow him to find the necessary gear, even in the midst of difficult seasons like this one.
It’s always waiting for him.
“I’ve never had trouble with that,” Holiday said. “I think every NBA player would say there are nights they just don’t have it. But you just find a way. I feel like that’s kind of the way it goes sometimes. I’ve never been the type to back down. And I hate feeling like I’m not giving my all for my teammates or myself on the court.
"I feel like you can see it when people do that, and it’s embarrassing. You know what I mean? When someone says ‘man, he didn’t feel like playing today,’ it’s embarrassing.”
“I’ve heard someone say it about me once, and it rubbed me the wrong way. It’s something I don’t want anyone to say ever again about me. Sometimes I go so hard I have to have surgery on my leg or get myself into an injury going too hard.
When Alvin Gentry last talked to the media before the All-Star break, he only wanted to talk to about the guys who played.
“I’ve always wanted to out-perform someone. Even on the days I don’t really have it, I usually get mad, whether it’s a ref or someone says something or even Gentry, it (expletive) me off. I’ve never known anything else. I’ve been like that ever since I’ve ever known.”
And it’s helped build his reputation as one of the league’s most respected two-way players, a stature that’s only grown during this discombobulated, disastrous Pelicans’ campaign.
Even in the face of Anthony Davis demanding a trade, and general manager Dell Demps getting fired, Holiday never wavered. As more distracting drama encircled his team every day, Holiday’s relentless competitiveness only stood out more.
“He plays harder than anyone in the league,” rookie guard Frank Jackson said. “It’s incredible what he does for this team. It makes you want to give everything you have when you’re with him.”
And even on nights where the Pelicans were double-digit underdogs or playing without five of their top six scorers, Holiday was there, carrying his team into contention and refusing to let largely meaningless basketball games look that way.
“I don’t worry about that stuff,” Holiday said. “On a personal level just to see, as the only starter who was available at some of those times, I think it showed I can carry a team. And then on top of that, to see the development of young guys, which was cool to see and I hope very prideful for them.
“It’s very promising and very exciting. I just want to give everything I can as long as I can.”