As the 2020 season came to a close, Jae Crowder watched from the Miami Heat sideline as the clock hit 0.0. While the cameras were obsessed with the bromance occurring between LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Crowder and his teammates were fixated on the court, disappointment painted across their faces.
Jae’s 12 points, 4 rebounds, and 1-for-5 from deep over 28 minutes played weren’t enough to overcome the juggernaut that was the Lakers. Los Angeles won Game 6 of the 2020 NBA Finals 106-93 and left the Orlando Bubble with a championship. For Crowder it was the seventh consecutive season in which his team had been eliminated from the playoffs.
The confetti fell, LeBron demanded his respect, and the Heat unceremoniously exited the court. The experience shook Jae to the point that he posted on Instagram that, a week after the loss in the Finals, he was having nightmares about the series.
The offseason began and soon Crowder left South Beach.
He joined the Phoenix Suns in November and became a solid contributor on a team that marched to the second seed in the minefield known as the Western Conference. Jae played in 60 games, starting 42, and posted 10.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.1 assists on 40.4/38.9/76.0 splits.
It wasn’t the most impressive season of his career. He’s scored more points and hit more threes. From a defensive rating standpoint, it was actually the worst season of his career, as he allowed 111 points per 100 possessions.
After a 51-21 regular season, Jae Crowder once again enters the playoffs. Who is waiting for him? The team that ousted him last season. The team that gave him nightmares. The Los Angeles Lakers.
It is understandable why Crowder had a rough experience in the NBA Finals last year. Following a Game 1 injury to Bam Adebayo, Jae was tasked with assisting in guarding Anthony Davis. Per NBA Advanced Stats, Crowder guarding AD for 13.3 matchup-possession-per-game in the Finals (his most versus any Laker in the series). Davis shot 52.6% from the field on Crowder and averaged 5.0 of his 25.0 points.
LeBron James scored on 66.7% of his attempts when Jae was guarding him.
The First Round matchup against the Lakers will offer the same opportunity for Crowder to display his physicality and defensive acumen. Seeing as he is the starting power forward for the Suns, and given his size, he will most likely draw Davis or James on defense. Mikal Bridges, as much as we love his long arms and defensive prowess, is 50 pounds lighter than LeBron and AD. Jae is only 15 pounds lighter.
Jae is used to taking on tough matchups. As I highlighted in a piece last week, Jae Crowder is 15-24 in his matchups relative to NBA Efficiency metrics put forth by HoopsStats.com. Yet when you look at the list of opponents, you see the level of the competition: Giannis, AD, LeBron. The key is that, although he has lost 24 of his qualifying matchups this season, the Suns are 19-5 in those games.
In previous matchups this season, Crowder was a -36 against Davis and a -24 against James. The Suns went 1-1.
Someone has to take the brunt of the defensive load against an oversized Lakers team. It will be Jae. Given the depth and athleticism of the Suns, however, and their affinity for team defense, he may feel less of the burden than he did last year in the NBA Finals.
It will interesting to see if the Lakers choose to consistently pose big lineups against the Suns’ starters. 35.7% of the time Crowder defends the opposing power forward, which would be Anthony Davis if Los Angeles opts for Andre Drummond and center, although he would be a potential liability on defense against Ayton — assuming Ayton is the aggressive “National TV” version of himself. When the Lakers go “small” with Davis at the five, the Suns matchup much better as it takes some of the defensive load off of Crowder.
The task that lies before Jae is great. In order for the Suns to be successful, he will not only have to shut down a top-5 NBA talent, but he will need to deliver on the offensive end. And this is where his presence will truly be felt.
He will be open.
Jae shot 6.3 three-pointers per game this season. 2.8 of those (or 44%) were deemed “wide open”, and he shot 43.6% on those attempts. Given the nature of the Suns offense, knowing that Crowder is the quaternary or even quinary option on offense, he will find himself standing alone on the weak side plenty. His ability to knock down open shots might ultimately be the deciding factor in the series.
In three games against the Lakers this season he shot 10-20 from deep. That’s a cool 50%. The opportunities will be there.
LeBron? AD? Those guys are going to get theirs. Crowder will have to do all he can to pester and annoy. His goal should be to disrupt on defense, forcing the Lakers into a physical brand of badgering basketball. But if Jae can get his offensively, if he can post 15 points per game, he will no longer remember the nightmares of 2020. He will make our dreams come true.