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.

Marcus Morris’ stepback three game-winner gives Knicks revenge in Kristaps Porzingis’ return

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The boos started during lay-up lines, grew deafening when he was introduced, and once the game got rolling “KP Sucks” chants echoed through Madison Square Garden.

Knicks fans wanted revenge on Kristaps Porzingis.

Marcus Morris — one of the guys New York spent all that cap space they got in the Porzingis trade on — gave it to them with a game-winning stepback three.

The Knicks beat the Mavericks 106-103.

Porzingis had 20 points on 7-of-17 shooting, plus 11 rebounds in his return to MSG. Not exactly a “you’re going to miss me” game to frustrate Knicks fans, but better than most of his games to start the season. After 20 months off, Porzingis is still shaking off the rust, and getting used to playing next to Luke Doncic (who had a triple-double of 33 points, 11 assists, and 10 rebounds). Still, he made some plays.

Morris had 20 for the Knicks leading a balanced attack. Julius Randle added 17.

From LeBron through Patrick Mahomes, everyone reacting to Carmelo Anthony return

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Carmelo Anthony is back in the NBA — he is signing with the Portland Trail Blazers.

While Anthony didn’t have a lot of love in NBA front offices, he remains wildly popular among other players and fans. Something obvious on NBA Twitter in the wake of the Anthony news breaking. Check out the reactions from other players.

It’s not just NBA players who were pumped about the return of ‘Melo.

There were also great fan and media reactions.

 

Portland reportedly signs Carmelo Anthony to non-guaranteed contract

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Off to an ugly 4-8 start this season — despite Damian Lillard tearing it up at an MVP level — the Portland Trail Blazers are desperate for any help in the frontcourt they can find, especially a four who can stretch the floor.

Enter Carmelo Anthony.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story.

He will join the team during its upcoming six-game road trip. Lillard is reportedly on board with this.

Portland visits Houston on Monday of that road trip — the last team that ‘Melo played for.

This is really a low-risk move by the Blazers thanks to the non-guaranteed contract. If it doesn’t work out, Portland just moves on.

Anthony has been searching for a path back into the NBA through most of last season — the Rockets let him go after just 10 games, deciding to part ways — and this past summer, with no takers until now. Two issues were holding teams back. First has been concern about his willingness to accept a role. ‘Melo is losing the race with Father Time and is no longer a top offensive option, yet he reportedly wanted to be treated like one — and get the touches of one. There were concerns he would be disruptive, something he (and the people around him) pushed back hard against.

The second issue was ‘Melo’s defense, which has gone from not good to dreadful. In an NBA where big men now have to cover more in space, Anthony has been exposed. And will be again.

Portland was in the right position to roll the dice on Anthony.

Portland has an elite backcourt led by Damian Lillard, who is averaging 30.5 points per game and carrying the offense. His backcourt partner CJ McCollum has struggled out of the gate, but Portland isn’t really worried about him finding his rhythm soon and getting back to being himself.

The frontcourt, however, has been a disaster. Jusuf Nurkic — their third-best player last season, and at points arguably their second-best — is out until likely after the All-Star break from a fractured leg that required surgery. The Blazers had hoped Zach Collins would take a step forward this season and fill that role both at the five and as a stretch four, but he is out four months following shoulder surgery. Pau Gasol was signed this summer but he has yet to step on the court and is battling a foot issue.

Hassan Whiteside was a big off-season signing, but he has played like he always has — sporadic effort and empty calorie stats. His inability to set a good pick has hurt the ability of Lillard and McCollum to find space. Beyond that, Anthony Tolliver and Skal Labissiere getting plenty of minutes.

In that context, adding Anthony to see if it can work out makes sense.

If not, the Blazers can just move on, but you know Anthony will be motivated to make this work.

Welcome back — Knicks fans boo Kristaps Porzingis every chance they get (VIDEO)

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Knicks fans have a long, proud history of loud boos for “villans” in opposing uniforms. LeBron James heard them. Reggie Miller was a favorite target. Kris Humphries heard some very loud ones.

Kristaps Porzingis‘ boos were as loud as any of them.

Porzingis was Porzingod when he first came to New York, the anointed savior of the Knicks who would return them to the promised land. Or at least the playoffs. Instead, he battled injuries, put up numbers and made an All-Star team, but eventually his relationship with then team president Phil Jackson soured to the point KP blew off an exit interview at the end of the season. Jackson was ultimately let go, but the combination of team president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry, along with coach David Fizdale, could not salvage things.

Last season, while out recovering from a torn ACL, Porzingis and his agent/brother went into Mills’ office and demanded a trade (something the Knicks had privately already been working on). The next day he was sent to Dallas and the Knicks scapegoated him as not wanting to be there (which is true, but Knicks management was why he didn’t want to be there).

Thursday night was Porzingis’ first return to Madison Square Garden, and Knicks fans were ready for him.

The boos started in the lay-up lines.

Of course, he was booed during the game, plus there have been “KP Sucks” chants.

Everyone, even the celebrities in the crowd, was in on the act.