This series was supposed to be about the Portland Trail Blazers' dynamic backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Instead, it has been a referendum on the best guard on the court -- New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday -- whose relentless defensive pressure and unstoppable drives into the lane have earned New Orleans a commanding 2-0 advantage with Game 3 of the best-of-seven Western Conference playoff series set for Thursday night at the Smoothie King Center.
"I may be a little bit biased, but if you can tell me a better two-way player in the league right now ... I'm willing to listen," New Orleans head coach Alvin Gentry said after Holiday scored a playoff career-high 33 points and had nine assists in a 111-102 victory in Portland on Tuesday night.
In the Pelicans' first two victories, Holiday has made 24 field goals while helping to hold down Lillard and McCollum to a combined 29 baskets. He made three crucial defensive stops in the final minute of a 97-95 series-opening victory on Saturday and has been particularly tough on Lillard, who has struggled with his shot.
"I worked hard for this, honestly, all season long when nobody is looking," said Holiday, whose first three seasons in New Orleans had been dogged by a series of leg injuries and also by the scary surgery for the removal of a benign brain tumor endured by his wife Lauren in 2016. "Just to be able to go out there and play again is a blessing. I've been battling injuries and to be out there and to play, that's what I train for. ... I feel like I'm in a really good place right now."
Holiday missed 107 games in his first three seasons with the Pelicans, but this season he has played in 81 games and regained the form that made him an All-Star with the Philadelphia 76ers. He made 14 of 24 field goals attempts on Tuesday night.
"I think once I surpassed everything with my family and made sure they were OK, things were definitely put into perspective," Holiday said. "My family's most important to me."
Gentry said he was cautioning his players not to assume the playoff series was over despite having won the first two on the road.
"We got two wins," Gentry said. "We've still got to get two more wins, so we're not overly excited about anything. ... We've done an exceptional job on those two guards, and you never know when they're just going to go off, and so we're not celebrating anything."
Lillard pointed the blame at himself for the Blazers' first two losses.
"A little bit frustrated," Lillard said. "Just expecting more out of myself. Coming into the playoffs, you know teams are going to lock in and they're going to try to make the game hard for you. I give a lot of credit to them for executing their game plan. ... But I've just got to be better. It's as simple as that."
NBA.com reported that Holiday has guarded Lillard for 74 possessions in the first two games, about half the time Lillard has been on the court, and Lillard has scored just seven points on 2-of-18 shooting. Holiday has been the primary defender on McCollum for 35 possessions, and he's scored just 11 points on 4 of 10 shooting.
"I think you're starting to see how good (Holiday) truly is on both ends of the floor," McCollum said. "He's got good pace, he's got good patience in pick-and-rolls, and I think they have a good defensive team overall. He's a good player and he's playing extremely well."
The Blazers also are battling injuries. Guard Evan Turner sustained a bruised right toe while colliding with E'Twaun Moore and played less than five minutes in the second half. Starting center Jusuf Nurkic suffered a left leg bruise in the third quarter after colliding with Anthony Davis and did not return.
Pelicans forward Niko Mirotic tweaked his ankle in the fourth quarter on Tuesday but remained in the game.
"It's a position that we didn't want to be in," Lillard said, "especially when you start on your home court. But we're competitors. As a competitor, the challenge should be fun. You don't want to be in this position ... but it should be fun and we should accept that challenge. If not, then it could be a quick series."
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