For Celtics forward Jae Crowder, every night brings a new homework assignment in front of the glow of his television. No matter whether it is an off day, or if it’s late after a game at TD Garden, he invariably turns on NBA League Pass and starts to study.
Sometimes he watches a defender or a team he admires, looking for approaches that he could adopt. Sometimes he watches an upcoming opponent, gathering intelligence about offensive tendencies. One player might show weakness when double-teams arrive; another might hesitate in pick-and-roll situations.
Crowder, who often guards the opponent’s most dangerous scorer, uses the information to complement scouting reports. His identity is his defense, and despite having the physical gifts, he knows that without preparation, his edge would be minimized.
“You study the opponent and study the game plan and just have to be confident in your work,” he said. “You have to know your opponent and you have to be active. That’s all it is.”
Through seven games this season, Crowder’s approach has been effective. He leads the NBA with 3.4 steals per game, 26 percent more than the next-closest player, league MVP Steph Curry, who averages 2.7.
Crowder has always been viewed as a very good defender, but if this current trend continues, it could signal his rise to the elite. He did not average more than 0.9 steals in any of his first three pro seasons.
Yes, he is averaging a career-high 30.3 minutes per game this year, but his rate of 4.1 steals per 36 minutes is still nearly 2.5 times higher than any of his three previous years.
“I think it’s in his DNA to want to defend,” said Celtics assistant coach Jerome Allen. “He anticipates very well and is almost always in the right position.”
“I enjoy watching him leave it on the floor every night, regardless of whether he’s switching onto a point guard, playing the 4, or guarding the other team’s best scorer. He’s really embraced this part of his game.”
Steals can be a flawed statistic. Players sometimes collect them after being out of position or because they have taken an unnecessary risk that left the rest of the defense vulnerable. But a video review of all 24 of Crowder’s steals this season showed a relentless player who is always probing for an opportunity without harming the overall defensive scheme.
Nine of Crowder’s steals came on intercepted passes, seven came from simply stripping the ball or poking it away from an opponent, and five were the result of deflections. The others were a mixture of gobbling up loose balls and being in the right place at the right time.
“He’s a hell of a defender, man,” said Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas. “He has such good anticipation skills, and that’s what it’s all about on the defensive end.”
Crowder might be most dangerous after an opponent gets a rebound and looks to move upcourt. Those moments can be unsettled, because big men are less comfortable handling the ball and sometimes cannot find a guard right away.
As Crowder pedals back on defense, he tends to spy the situation developing in the backcourt, looking for an opportunity to pounce. One of his greatest assets is his versatility. He is quicker and more fluid than the power forwards he defends, and sometimes they’re unprepared for his athleticism.
During the season-opening win over the 76ers, he watched as forward Nerlens Noel uncomfortably brought the ball upcourt. He knew a pass was coming soon, so he laid back and zeroed in on one of the only real passing lanes before gobbling up Noel’s offering.
Against the Raptors two nights later, with forward Luis Scola dribbling upcourt, Crowder sped up behind him and knocked the ball away.
Other times, though, the challenge is more considerable and the opponents are more dynamic. Over the past two weeks, Crowder has been tasked with guarding Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, and Indiana’s Paul George (twice). Steals in these situations are a nice bonus, but mostly Crowder just wants to slow these stars down.
So far this season, opponents are shooting 41.7 percent from the field when Crowder is guarding them and 44.6 percent when defended by all others.
Crowder had five steals in the Celtics’ loss to the Pacers Wednesday. One came on an excellent denial of an inbounds pass to George, and another when he simply ripped the ball away from the former All-Star as he drove toward the rim. But Crowder played a season-low 26 minutes because of foul trouble, and George finished with 26 points.
And that is what probably had him back in front of his television late Wednesday night, watching more opponents and gathering more information.
“All I try to do is make an impact on the defensive end every night,” Crowder said. “It’s not going to be perfect. You’re not going to hold someone scoreless in this league, but you can make it tough on them and you can have an impact on the game.”