PHOENIX — In Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets, I bet you didn’t notice Suns forward Jae Crowder all that much during the team’s 39-12 tidal wave of a run in the second half that completely blew the game open.
But believe me, if you pay close enough attention, he’s there making plays most won’t notice.
When Denver was up nine, guess who was there to lightly guide Nikola Jokic to the baseline so he didn’t grab an offensive rebound:
When Denver was up six, guess who stood tall defending Jokic at the free-throw line and forced him into a tough shot:
When Denver was up one, guess who recovered to Jokic and forced him toward the heart of the defense where he knew his teammates were waiting:
When Phoenix was up two and Devin Booker recreated the meme, guess who freed up his path:
When Phoenix was up five and got a runout off a turnover, guess who forced that turnover:
When Phoenix was up nine, guess who swiped away at a potential offensive rebound and chased down a loose ball going out of bounds to make sure the Nuggets didn’t get an extra possession to close the third quarter:
While some box scores will tell you otherwise, more often than not, Crowder’s fingerprints are all over a game. He’s too smart and too good on defense for that to not be the case.
It has made him the unsung hero of the team, a claim I can undoubtedly make based on how a lot of fans viewed him during some shooting slumps and nights where he wasn’t scoring much.
The 31-year-old just knows how to win. Here are the records of the teams Crowder was on at the end of his nine seasons: 41-41, 49-33, 40-42, 48-34, 53-29, 48-34, 50-32, 44-29 and 51-21. Yep, two games under .500 is the worst he’s seen when his year is done.
Crowder was a huge luxury for the Suns to have last season with a young team, playing a part in teaching Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton how to be on a good NBA defense.
He does just about everything right. Do your old pal Kellan a favor this season and watch him for a few possessions. You’ll see what I’m talking about.
I could watch Jae Crowder defend all day pic.twitter.com/iAXivpsZEa
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) June 10, 2021
“We tell all of our guys that come in to watch Jae on defense,” head coach Monty Williams said Tuesday. “That’s probably the biggest compliment I can give Jae … Whether it’s the communication, being in the right spot, giving up his body — the high-level IQ that he has for the game is something that we value. I’ll run a lot of stuff by Chris (Paul) and Jae because those guys have been in so many situations, but in particular Jae, because he’s had to guard so many positions.”
Williams would speak on Crowder’s importance throughout last season as the guy on the backline of the defense, calling things out and knowing where everything needed to be for every type of situation. Paul has all that down too, but he’s on the frontline a fair bit, so it’s a different role.
“I think it’s given Deandre a lot of confidence,” Williams said of Crowder. “Those two — Paul and Crowder — have helped him, Mikal and Book kind of put it together for those three guys because you have a guy at the top who knows what the other team is trying to do, what we’re trying to do, and then you have a guy behind who’s almost like a Darren Woodson from the (Dallas) Cowboys.
“That’s kind of what Jae reminds me of. Not necessarily a [safety], but a guy that can be on your third level of your defense that knows exactly what’s going on and can see it from that vantage point. That has helped us get better on the defensive side of the ball.”
Crowder credited the team building more of a bond and doing the extra work to get better.
“We gained the trust of one another,” he said. “I felt like that came with winning and losing. It comes with winning and losing, it comes with going through some stuff.”
“Every time we lost or won, we came in and watched flim, we talked about it and we tried to apply it,” he added.
The forward said he’s always been smart and playbooks have come naturally to him, noting his days in high school of playing quarterback, as we continue to cram football analogies in here.
Crowder had to “learn the NBA game first,” as he put it, before becoming a guy by his fifth season who knew how everything was going to unfold.
Then he could properly help lead.
“I’m able to regurgitate that and give it to my teammates,” Crowder said. “I’m able to see plays, I’m able to communicate — I know how much communication on that end of the court is key.”
When it comes to how younger players need to see and play the game, with Crowder bringing up second-year big Jalen Smith as an example, he had a great way of framing it.
“You don’t want to overthink on the court,” Crowder said. “You want to play and react. You know the situation — you wanna get put in some certain situations where you’re just reacting.”
That’s all it is for Crowder: Instinctual.
“I’m not thinking,” he said. “I’m just reacting.”
He’s got the right habits to lean on from his days in college at Marquette. Williams had that come to mind for him with Crowder’s Ps and Qs, spending time with Golden Eagle alum Jimmy Butler in Philadelphia and seeing the same things.
“Footwork, hand position, body position — it’s almost like second nature to those guys,” Williams said.
Great teams need players like Crowder to win championships. The Suns are lucky to have someone who responds with the following when asked if he thinks the tiny details of defense are a lost art in today’s NBA.
“Well it’s a lost art in our game period because everyone wanna score the basketball,” he said. “People don’t worry about defense until it matters. That’s when [they’re] like, ‘Well we need defense instead of offense.’”
While there is rightful excitement about the development of third-year wing Cam Johnson and fourth-year wing Mikal Bridges and their long-term potential, don’t lose sight of what Crowder brings, a lot of which has immeasurable value.