PHILADELPHIA — Jae Crowder knows nights like Friday won’t come often, when he is relied upon to score in the fourth quarter. That is usually the job of Isaiah Thomas and Crowder has had to sacrifice offense to accommodate his All-Star teammate.
On Friday, he delivered a season high in points with 24 and rebounds with 12 in the Celtics’ 98-95 win over the Nets . It was the type of performance that makes fans cherish his presence, especially since the Celtics sacrificed little — a Rajon Rondo coming off knee surgery — to get him three years ago.
The former second-round pick has cemented himself as the team’s starting small forward. But with the Celtics having championship aspirations, cap space, and the ability to make a lottery pick this summer, there has long been speculation about Crowder’s eventual replacement.
Crowder’s numbers aren’t eye-popping. He is averaging 13.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, and shooting 39.8 percent from the 3-point line this season. His scoring has dipped a little from last season because he has taken 1.3 fewer shots. Those numbers won’t get him elected to an All-Star team, but Crowder brings a toughness and grit the Celtics lost when they traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn.
“I don’t put a ceiling on my game,” he said. “Once the opportunity presents itself, I try to just step up to the opportunity. But we run a lot of stuff for Isaiah on the court and that just limits me on the offensive end a lot, so it is what it is.”
Yet there are Celtics faithful craving to add Gordon Hayward, the Jazz swingman and former Brad Stevens pupil at Butler, or wanting the club to trade for the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler, Crowder’s former Marquette teammate, or even try again for the Pacers’ Paul George.
Crowder hears this, stews, and is offended. But he understands that his style will never be truly appreciated by numbers folks.
“Of course it motivates me,” Crowder said when hears the names of his possible replacements. “A lot of talk has been said about me not being here. But, at the same time, it’s a part of this business and I’m aware of that.”
Crowder has accepted that Thomas — with his 29.2 points per game and 19.6 shot attempts — is the focal point of the Celtics’ offense. Moreover, Avery Bradley needs to get shots and so does Al Horford. So Crowder has to accept a complementary offensive role, although his improved offensive skills — he has become a dependable 3-point shooter and driver — could make him a more featured player.
When asked what would make him an elite small forward, on the level of a Butler, George, or Hayward, Crowder said, “A lot of other small forwards, they are shooting the ball 15, 20 times a game. I shoot the ball 10 times a game on a good night. So I’m playing against the odds a little bit trying to be at the elite level because I don’t have the same type of opportunity as those guys. It puts me behind the 8-ball a little bit, but I fight night in and night out and I do what I’ve got to do.”
It’s not that Crowder doesn’t want a more prominent offensive role; it’s that the Celtics are winning with things as they are now. They are the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference and the team has ascended since his arrival. He plays a certain role for this team, defending those elite small forwards such as LeBron James and George, fighting for the tough rebound, and being able to hit the open shot when defenses collapse on Thomas.
His work may not be appreciated by the common Celtics fan, but it is by Stevens.
“He’s a guy that obviously can shoot the basketball,” the coach said. “He’s figured out the best place is to drive it when he can post, so he can go a variety of ways depending on who’s guarding him and how they’re playing him. He’s effective at the [small forward], he’s effective at the [power forward], and he’s versatile defensively, so he’s a guy that’s hard to keep off the court because of all those things.”
Crowder said he is content to do those little things that are generally overlooked to win games. He said his mentality is selfless.
“I play to win games,” he said. “I don’t care about what the fans say or what the critics say about anything, to be honest with you. That’s what I bring to a team. I’ve become a real student of the game. I watch a lot of film. I critique myself on a different level. It’s all just growing up and being a smarter basketball player, and I think my dad has always encouraged me because it helps me.
“I don’t really get caught up in stats. That’s not why I play the game. I’ve won a lot of accolades, but at this level I don’t care about that. I just care about winning. I want to go down as a winner.”