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Thinking through Jae Crowder’s role in the Suns’ first-round battle with Lakers

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Why it might make sense for Crowder to not defend either LeBron or Anthony Davis.

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Will Navarro/NBAE via Getty Images

Throughout Miami’s run in the Bubble last year, Jae Crowder slotted into all sorts of roles for the Heat defense. The cast of defenders around him with the Suns this season isn’t exactly the same, but from the jump, Crowder will likely be asked to do many of the same things against the Lakers in the first round as he did in last year’s Finals.

With Jimmy Butler handling the LeBron James assignment for the most part and Bam Adebayo defending Anthony Davis, the Heat used Crowder’s phenomenal help defense ability to flood the paint and try to turn the Lakers’ stars into passers or jump shooters. Going into this Suns-Lakers series, I expect Crowder’s job to be similar.

No matter who the opponent’s top perimeter creator has been this season, Mikal Bridges has gotten the assignment. He’s guarded everyone from Stephen Curry to Kawhi Leonard. It seems pretty likely Bridges will start the game on James. That’s where things get interesting.

Monty Williams will then have to decide whether Crowder or Deandre Ayton should guard Anthony Davis. In some ways, it will depend on whether the Lakers are playing big or small. But based on how Crowder has played in the past, it seems as if the Suns can actually keep their matchups pretty consistent no matter what lineup Los Angeles throws out.

Against the Lakers in last year’s Finals, Crowder spent much of his time on Markieff Morris, who often was stationed in the corner or wing as a floor-spacer. When he wasn’t guarding Morris, the Heat would actually place Crowder on a big man like Dwight Howard, who typically stood in the dunker’s spot along the baseline.

Because he’s so strong and smart and creates steals at a solid rate, Crowder is helpful in this role. He knows who he can leave open from deep (like Morris) and how to time his rotations, and is aware enough to switch or recover when a possession goes haywire. Crowder also fights on the glass, so coaches can trust him to box out someone like Howard (or Andre Drummond) without giving up too many offensive rebounds.

Of course, putting Crowder on a secondary big man also puts him in situations where he can switch onto James or Davis (or even someone like Dennis Schroder). That happened frequently in the Finals, and Crowder can more than hold his own there as well. Suns fans will remember Crowder yanking the chair from beneath Giannis Antetokounmpo this season — he’s a solid post defender.

In Miami’s five-game upset of Milwaukee in last year’s second round, Crowder was on Giannis most of the time. That type of matchup isn’t foreign to him, but James is different because James can beat him off the dribble in a way that Giannis mostly cannot.

What happened pretty often in the Finals was that James just forced Crowder into fouls while James barreled to the rim. Crowder had at least four fouls in each of Games 3-6. The same happened, as you can see in the clip above, when Crowder was defending off the ball. Some of those are worthwhile, and you have a physical player like Crowder out there in part to be an enforcer, but what you don’t want is Crowder having to foul James because James beats him.

That might mean we see Crowder on Davis at times, especially to start games. The Suns were reluctant to deploy Ayton on Davis until the second half this month when the teams met, even as Davis ran up the Lakers’ lead. It makes sense: defending Davis full time while also being responsible for help at the rim and smart play on offense is a lot for a third-year big man like Ayton. But if the Lakers go small, the Suns don’t really have a better choice than to put Ayton on Davis and use Crowder in this way.

As last year’s Finals showed, though, even when the Lakers go big, there are many benefits to staying small and having Crowder act as more of a traditional big man, defending opposing centers, helping at the rim, and taking care of the glass. It’s a risky proposition, but it allows the Suns to slot their matchups in a more reasonable way than, say, trying to have Dario Saric out there more often or exposing Torrey Craig in a difficult matchup.

Foul trouble or an unexpected series from one of the Lakers’ big men would change what Williams prioritized, but based on what we know now, using Crowder in this way seems like something the Suns should go to as much as possible.

The Suns have been at their best with Crowder at the 4 this season, and his skill set has shown to be useful in a team defense role against basically this exact Lakers team in the past. Rather than trying to make Crowder do something he’s less effective at, the Suns would likely be best served to keep Crowder as a help man and let him read the floor, help his younger teammates, and create havoc inside.