Jae Crowder: The driving force behind Suns’ rise

NBA Finals play-by-play commentator Mike Breen spoke about the impact Jae Crowder has had on the Phoenix Suns during the early stages of Game 2. 

“He played a terrific game, despite scoring just one point in Game 1.”

But how is it that someone can have a ‘terrific game’ by scoring just one of two free throws late on and going 0-8 from the floor?

The veteran presence

Much of the praise for the success of this Phoenix Suns team goes to Chris Paul, and understandably so. At 36, he has worked hard to connect with a young roster of early-20-somethings that includes a former number one overall draft pick and a headstrong player who has previously scored 70 points in a game.

The team went 8-0 in the Orlando bubble to finish off the regular season last year, so this core could have come into this season with all the swagger and would have likely been a tough first-round opponent in the playoffs had they continued to progress. But swapping out Ricky Rubio for Paul this year has turned the team from a playoff threat to a championship contender, and they now have a good lead in an NBA Finals series.

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul reacts after being hit in the eye during the first half in Game 6 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday, June 30, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill) 2:09
Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul drops 41 points in a close-out win over the LA Clippers for a trip to the NBA Finals.

So, yes, Paul deserves his flowers. But he’s not the only new addition to the franchise. Head coach Monty Williams is the man that moves all the pieces on the chessboard, and he has turned the offense around from being the Devin-Booker-one-man show, to an everybody-eats system that sees Booker split ball-handling duties with Paul so both of them can set up the rising big man Deandre Ayton. Williams has spoken about how they have both sacrificed, not only to share the ball with each other, but with the likes of other youngsters Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson.

Crowder is the final piece of the puzzle who joined the team this year. The system now in place lets Paul and the rising stars shine, while the young role players are showing their worth in the league. Crowder’s play often goes unnoticed, but he might deserve the most of the credit for this team’s turnaround from a non-playoff team to one in the hunt for a championship within a few months.

Crowder is the fifth starter. In this series, he managed 11 points in Game 2 to outshine his one-point performance in Game 1 for an average of six points. It’s hardly anything to write home about, but this team doesn’t need Crowder to score.

Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton, top right, scores over Los Angeles Clippers center Ivica Zubac during the second half of Game 2 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals, Tuesday, June 22, 2021, in Phoenix. 1:22
Jae Crowder and DeAndre Ayton connect with the alley-oop in the last second of the game to seal victory for the Phoenix Suns in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the LA Clippers.

Outside of Paul, Crowder is the only player getting minutes in the playoffs who has more than five years under his belt in the NBA. He’s played in 17 playoff series, including the NBA Finals last year with the Miami Heat, while most of the Suns have never even been to the playoffs.

Crowder explained his role to Sky Sports NBA: “It was big for our group to put some leaders around the guys that are younger and haven’t been in as many big games, being able to just accept advice and apply it on a daily basis has been great. I love seeing the younger players grow.”

Doing the little things

In this series, Jae Crowder has guarded Brook Lopez, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, PJ Tucker, Bobby Portis and Pat Connaughton. He’s even matched up with Bryn Forbes and Jeff Teague for the handful of possessions they have made brief appearances. For those keeping count, that’s every member of the Milwaukee Bucks who has played more than garbage time during the NBA Finals.

Phoenix Suns forward Jae Crowder (99) knocks the ball away from Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during the second half of Game 1 of basketball...s NBA Finals, Tuesday, July 6, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Image: Jae Crowder knocks the ball away from Giannis Antetokounmpo

It’s a short rotation at this point of the season, so of course if you’re in the top six or seven players on the team, you basically have no choice but to defend everyone who gets minutes, especially with the Phoenix Suns’ defense.

Coach Williams gets his team to switch on man-to-man defense one-through-four – which means in a pick-and-roll situation the point guard, shooting guard, small forward and power forward will swap their defensive assignment. The center plays in a drop coverage to protect the rim and a rolling attacker. The team also defends possessions using a zone, where each player covers a specific area of the court.

It makes sense that everyone guards everybody at some point, but the impact Crowder makes without being a consistent threat to put the ball in the basket on offense shows how his defense is affecting the game. He has the best plus-minus in the series from either team with +14.5. In short, the Suns are 14.5 points better off against the Bucks when Crowder has been on the floor.

Chris Paul and Devon Booker celebrate Phoenix's win in Game 2 of the NBA Finals 3:26
Devin Booker led the scoring for a well-balanced Phoenix Suns, who played superbly as a team to take a 2-0 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 NBA Finals, despite a heroic performance from Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Jae is a great player,” Bucks forward Pat Connaughton said to Sky Sports NBA.

“He’s showed it time and time again depending on what team he’s been on. He’s physical, he’s tough, he’s a great defender and a great shooter, and he does all the little things that may not end up on the stat sheet but you need in order to put yourself in a position to win in the playoffs. I think he’s a tremendous player and we obviously have to make sure we continue to mitigate or match the things he does on our end.”

The things that don’t show up on stat sheets include positioning on defense and offense, making the pass that leads to a pass for an open shot. For example, on the Suns’ beautiful 10-pass possession that finished with Ayton finishing a layup and get fouled, Crowder was responsible for five of those passes. His selflessness and an ability to know what is needed shines on each play.

Phoenix Suns' Devin Booker goes up for a dunk next to Milwaukee Bucks' Jrue Holiday (21) during the first half of Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals, Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Phoenix. (Christian Petersen/Pool Photo via AP) 1:15
Check out all the best action from Game 2 of the NBA Finals with the top five plays of the night.

Crowder said: “As a player, I bring a winning environment, I do whatever it takes to win. I could hit the game-winning shot, make the game-winning block or game-winning steal or game-winning rebound. I just want to do whatever it takes to win. Whatever is needed, that’s what I’ll bring to any team.”

Giving him props

Throughout his career, Crowder has added toughness and defense to each team he’s played with. On the Dallas Mavericks, the Boston Celtics, the Utah Jazz and the Miami Heat, his under-the-radar brilliance was noticed but not appreciated, perhaps because those teams never lifted the trophy.

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul, left, celebrates with Jae Crowder after the Suns defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2 of basketball...s NBA Finals, Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Image: Chris Paul and Jae Crowder celebrate after defeating the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 2

Whenever this young group is asked about the leadership of Chris Paul in the locker room, almost all of them are quick to add Crowder in as another key voice. He offers advice for on-court situations, motivation for the times when they are down and leads by example with his willingness to guard any player and pass the ball to create an open shot, and then support his team-mates whenever they do something well.

If the Suns win two more out of the next five to lift the trophy, Crowder might get the recognition and the appreciation he deserves for consistently having great games, even if it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. And he seems to think this team might be the one that wins it all: “For our younger players, they want to be special in this league and want to grow and want to learn.

“The one thing that sticks out to me as a team is how bad everyone wants it and how much everyone is willing to go above and beyond for success.”

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