Jae Crowder, one of NBA’s most underrated players, helping Celtics move on

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Jared Sullinger arrived early to the arena and bumped into Vander Blue.

Sullinger’s Ohio State and Blue’s Marquette teams, on opposite sides of the region, were opening the 2011 NCAA tournament in Cleveland.

As the two friends exchanged pleasantries, Blue’s teammate – Jae Crowder – intervened. He apparently didn’t want Blue making nice with a potential later-round foe. Crowder got upset, and as Sullinger put it, “We almost got into a little scuffle.”

“From there on, I knew I could always ride with Jae,” Sullinger said, “because he’s going to fight for you.”

Nearly four years later, Sullinger’s Celtics acquired Crowder in the Rajon Rondo trade.

“I was excited,” Sullinger said. “I knew we got somebody that just knows one way, one way how to play – and that’s play hard every night.”

Crowder has emerged as more than just a hustle player in Boston. His two-way excellence quietly puts him in a special class. He’s one of just nine players with a Real Plus-Minus of at least two on both ends of the floor:

Player Offensive RPM Defensive RPM
LeBron James 6.09 2.78
Kawhi Leonard 4.32 4.36
Draymond Green 3.59 5.09
Kyle Lowry 5.21 2.00
DeMarcus Cousins 2.64 3.51
Paul Millsap 3.59 2.26
Chris Bosh 2.84 2.45
Kevin Love 3.25 2.00
Jae Crowder 2.01 2.18

Those other eight are drawing serious All-Star consideration.

Even Crowder’s traditional stats suggest he warrants a higher profile.

Just four other players so young average as many points (14.5), rebounds (5.3) and assists (1.9) per game as Crowder: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Will Barton, Nikola Vucevic and DeMarcus Cousins. Also consider Crowder’s 1.8 steals game, and just five other players meet the marks at all: Stephen Curry,

Paul George,Kawhi Leonard,Paul Millsap and Russell Westbrook.

Crowder just finds ways to help Boston win – though that wasn’t always the case.

The Celtics lost their first four games with Crowder and began his tenure 3-12. He could tell the team missed Rondo.

“It was weird,” Crowder said. “Practices was like kind of weird. Guys wasn’t really taking it serious. You could tell he was the leader. The team had no leadership at that time. And we were losing. There was just a lot of down people, a lot of frustration.”

Crowder was frustrated, too. Fed up, he asked Boston coach Brad Stevens, “Are we trying to lose?”

The Celtics appeared to be tanking. Crowder looked like little more than a throw-in in the Rondo deal, which netted a first-round pick and Brandan Wright (who was later flipped for another first-rounder). Boston also traded Jeff Green for yet another first-rounder.

The self-made Crowder had taken too hard a path to the NBA to passively accept losing.

He enrolled at South Georgia Tech out of high school, playing for a school he’d learn was unaccredited. “The coach lied to me to get me to sign there,” Crowder said. Once he realized that – on a tip from Bob Huggins – Crowder transferred to Howard College in Texas. Another transfer landed him at Marquette, where his NBA dream finally felt realistic. He was drafted in the second round in 2012 and immediately cracked the Mavericks’ rotation. But his playing time decreased each of his three seasons in Dallas.

So, while Crowder was excited to play more in Boston, he disliked the team’s direction.

Stevens – who admits he didn’t know much about Crowder at the time of the trade – assured him he’d never coach a team to lose. The coach was also becoming impressed by Crowder, from his workout habits to his surprising versatility.

The Celtics traded for Isaiah Thomas, who sparked a stagnant offense, and surged into the playoffs. Though Thomas’ scoring earns him attention and makes him Boston’s most likely All-Star, Crowder’s value on both sides of the floor is immense. So is his intensity.

“We feed off of him,” Sullinger said.

During the Celtics’ first-round series against the Cavaliers last spring, Crowder – who frequently guarded LeBron James – declared, “Nobody on their team is intimidating.” Cleveland swept the series, but Crowder proved his toughness in the process.

He also showed a skill set that could help Boston bridge eras.

Rondo was the last remaining player from the Celtics’ 2008 championship team. Crowder’s arrival quite literally signaled a changing of the guard.

In recent years, the Celtics have pushed to land a star. Until they get one, and once they do, Crowder is key.

It’s not just that he’s good offensively and defensively. It’s that he’s good inside and out offensively and defensively.

He shoots 65% at the rim and 35% on 3-pointers. The 6-foot-6 Crowder comfortably covers shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards – and switching him onto centers and point guards is hardly problematic.

That’s a versatility built for the playoffs, when opponents will hammer at any deficiency. Crowder can’t be exposed. He just need the 22-20 Celtics, who are eighth in the Eastern Conference, to reach the postseason.

So far, he’s doing his part.

I’m usually first in line to scoff at Draymond Green comparisons. Green’s combination skills is incredibly rare. Not every undersized forward can just be him.

But Crowder shares similarities. He’s strong and tenacious enough to defend bigger players in the post, even if his height lends itself to perimeter defense (where he also performs well). He shoots well enough to spread the floor. Crowder doesn’t pass nearly as well as Green, but he keeps the ball moving.

Looking for a poor man’s Green? It’s Crowder – and that’s a compliment I wouldn’t bestow on anyone else in the league.

Crowder also has the capability to complement a high-usage star should Boston ever nab one.

Crowder is excellent off the ball – cutting, working off screens, spotting up. It’d help if he shot better from the corners, but his defense, rebounding and hustle more than make up for that shortcoming.

Best of all for the Celtics, they have Crowder locked up to a five-year, $35 million contract he signed last offseason. That deal looked like a steal the moment it was signed, and it’ll look even better as the salary cap skyrockets.

Crowder said he received interest from “four other Eastern Conference teams and Boston and one West Coast team.” One team, he said, made a higher-paying offer than the Celtics. He also figures – correctly, I believe – he could’ve gotten even more lucrative offers simply by waiting.

But Crowder agreed to terms with Boston on the second day of free agency. He’s even talking already about signing an extension in three years, though unless the Celtics also renegotiate his deal – why would they? – the maximum possible extension would still leave him a huge bargain.

“I didn’t know if, the saying, the grass is greener on the other side at that time,” Crowder said. “So, I just wanted to stick with what I knew, and what I knew is trying to make Boston my home.”

The Celtics have to be thrilled he chose their green.

If you’re a Comcast subscriber in Boston, you can stream tonight’s Celtics-Raptors game here.

Watch Kawhi Leonard’s 39 points spark Clippers rally past Pelicans 133-130

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 39 points and the Los Angeles Clippers rallied to beat the New Orleans Pelicans 133-130 on Saturday.

Lou Williams scored 14 of his 32 points during a dominant fourth quarter for Los Angeles, which outscored the Pelicans 31-20 in the final 12 minutes.

Williams’ 3 with 31.6 seconds left, after Patrick Beverley had rebounded Leonard’s miss, gave the Clippers a 133-127 lead and sent numerous fans toward the exits.

But JJ Redick hit a quick 3, and after Leonard ran down the shot clock and missed a 3, New Orleans had 2.4 seconds to attempt a tying 3 that Redick missed off the back rim.

Montrezl Harrell scored 24 points for the Clippers, who trailed by 10 in the final seconds of the third quarter, but turned a steal into two free throws and then opened the fourth with an 8-0 run to tie it at 110.

After shooting 58.5% (38 of 65) in the first three quarters, the Pelicans made just 8 of 21 shots in the fourth as the game slipped away from them.

Lonzo Ball had 18 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds for the Pelicans, who were seeking their 11th victory in 15 games despite the recent absence of guard Jrue Holiday, who has missed seven games with an elbow injury.

Derrick Favors had 22 points and 11 rebounds for New Orleans, while Brandon Ingram had 21 points and Redick scored 19.

The teams combined for 152 points in a fast-paced first half, during which New Orleans tied a franchise record with 80 points.

Favors made his first seven shots and had 15 of his points in the opening 24 minutes, when the Pelicans shot 63.6%, including 11-of-21 shooting from 3-point range.

Ball hit three 3s in the first half, his last giving the Pelicans an 80-72 lead that stood at halftime.

Leonard has scored at least 30 points in each of his last five games.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: NBA system wants you to flop, but ‘that’s not who I am’

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
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Giannis Antetokounmpo scores inside unlike anyone since Shaq.

Like with Shaquille O’Neal, Antetokounmpo has sparked a conversation about how much contacts he absorbs.

Antetokounmpo, via Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

“It’s kind of hard because in the NBA, the way it’s built, they want you to flop,” Antetokounmpo said of playing physically. “It wants you to be weak, kind of, because sometimes I think when you’re strong and you’re going through contact, they don’t call the foul. But when you’re flopping and kind of going into the contact and throwing the ball out, they’re just going to call foul, but that’s not who I am, that’s not what I’m gonna do.

“I’m just gonna try to power through contact. It’s going to be … where if a guy grabs me or pushes me, I’ve got to show it more, but I think I’ve done a better job of showing it more so the refs can see that the guys are holding me, pushing me and just being physical.”

James Harden and Antetokounmpo have traded barbs since last year’s MVP vote, which Antetokounmpo won over Harden. Was this another shot across Harden’s bow?

Harden isn’t the only player who flops. But Harden has earned a reputation as the NBA’s foremost flopper.

Antetokounmpo could do a better job of selling contact. But his tenaciousness sets a tone for the Bucks. His teammates see his determination and follow his lead. There’s a real positive effect to Antetokounmpo’s style.

Also, Antetokounmpo already averages 10.4 free throws per game. How many more fouls would he draw by flopping? Officials could be reluctant to give him even more whistles. Though each call should be evaluated independently, there can be a tendency not to call too many fouls.

Report: LeBron James views Jason Kidd as only living peer for basketball intelligence

LeBron James and Jason Kidd
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
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LeBron James is a basketball genius.

That somewhat explains why, since becoming a superstar, he has clashed with all previous his coaches – Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra, David Blatt, Tyronn Lue and Luke Walton. Traditional roles make coaches the brains behind the operation. But what happens when LeBron is the smartest person in the room? At best, it creates complications.

So, of course there were questions about how LeBron would take to new Lakers coach Frank Vogel. Vogel is a coach. That’s enough.

But LeBron also previously spread word of his desire to be coached by a former player. Vogel never played professionally. However, one of his assistants was a Hall of Fame player with previous head-coaching experience – Jason Kidd.

Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN:

One of those primary assistants would be Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, whom two sources have independently said James regards as the only person alive who sees the game of basketball with his level of clarity.

This is probably hyperbolic. But Kidd was an incredibly smart player. His court vision, defensive recognition and ability to find ways to contribute all over the floor were elite. I can see why LeBron would enjoy talking basketball with Kidd.

But that alone doesn’t make Kidd a good coach. Playing ability doesn’t always translate to coaching ability. His record with the Bucks and Nets leaves a lot to be desired. Interpersonal issues were glaring. Dated thinking became even more apparent when Mike Budenholzer succeeded Kidd and immediately guided Milwaukee to the next level. Kidd’s record of player development is mixed.

Still, that level of endorsement from LeBron carries major weight.

Kidd has been trying to become an NBA head coach again. He lobbied for the Lakers job while Luke Walton held it and interviewed for it before Vogel got it.

Vogel said he wasn’t worried about Kidd undermining him and acted as if he truly isn’t. The Lakers are 33-8, and Vogel is endearing himself in Los Angeles. To better understand how he’s doing it, I highly recommend reading Arnovitz’s article.

Report: In money-saving trade, Trail Blazers swapping Kent Bazemore for Kings’ Trevor Ariza

Trail Blazers trade Kent Bazemore to Kings for Trevor Ariza
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
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The NBA team with the highest payroll each of the last five years (record):

  • 2015-16: Cavaliers (57-25)
  • 2016-17: Cavaliers (51-31)
  • 2017-18: Cavaliers (50-32)
  • 2018-19: Thunder (49-33)
  • 2019-20: Trail Blazers (18-25)

Sitting 10th in the Western Conference, Portland is no longer content to spend so much on a losing team. So, the Trail Blazers will send Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver and two second-round picks to the Kings for Trevor Ariza, Caleb Swanigan and Wenyen Gabriel.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Assuming this trade becomes official Tuesday (the first day Gabriel can be traded), Portland is in line to save $12,657,456 (salary: $2,532,078, luxury tax: $10,125,379).

The Trail Blazers are now $6,129,275 over the luxury-tax line. I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to dodge the tax entirely. Hassan Whiteside, Rodney Hood, Mario Hezonja, Ariza, Swanigan and Gabriel are all candidates to get dealt in cost-cutting moves.

Portland is also still trying to make the playoffs. Ariza should help. He fills a clear need as a bigger wing who can defend and hit open 3-pointers. He has shown clear signs of decline at age 34, but he has outplayed Bazemore this season.

Ariza has $1.8 of his $12.8 million salary guaranteed next season, the only money due beyond this year to a player in this trade. That and the second-rounders are the cost of the Trail Blazers getting an immediate upgrade while saving major money now. Looks like excellent value.

Ostensibly, the Kings are also still trying to compete this season. They remain the fringe of the underwhelming playoff race. Ariza is not a big loss.

Still, he is a loss nonetheless. Bazemore doesn’t have a clear role. Sacramento is full at shooting guard with Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

This trade was seemingly primarily about the picks for the Kings.

Bazemore and Tolliver could also help in the locker room. There’s plenty of frustration in Sacramento. Better chemistry could go a long way.

Interestingly, Tolliver and Swanigan return to their former teams. The King gave Tolliver his biggest payday in 2016. The Trail Blazers drafted Swanigan No. 26 in 2017 then traded him to Sacramento last year. Both Tolliver (age 34) and Swanigan (limited interior big) appear in danger of washing out of the league.