INDEPENDENCE (92.3 the Fan) – If there was anybody from the Boston Celtics that was a thorn in the Cavaliers’ side (no pun intended) during their three straight years as Eastern Conference Champions, it was Jae Crowder.
Now a Cavalier himself, Crowder admitted that his now teammate, LeBron James, had been a thorn in his.
Outside of JR Smith’s infamous punch to his face in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals, guarding the four-time MVP had been the most notable storyline involving Crowder in the last three summers.
“I tried to study him, I studied play calls, as coach knows. You’ve got to study hard or you get embarrassed. I learned that the hard way early in my career,” Crowder said at his introductory press conference on Thursday. “From that point on, I took it very seriously matching up with him. He’s a hell of a player.”
Luckily for Crowder, the days of matching up on the opposite side of James are over. However, the good fortunes are not just on the side of number 99, but also James.
Crowder is the lesser-touted of he and All-Star Isaiah Thomas in the Cavaliers’ trade of Kyrie Irving, and even third on the bill when including the unprotected 2018 first round pick from the Brooklyn Nets. In 2017-18 and perhaps even beyond, that defensive benefit of the Marquette product may quickly turn into the headliner of the deal for James and the Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers have always coveted having another elite wing defender on their roster aside from James, something they sought out in Smith and Iman Shumpert. But when push came to shove – solely meaning the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals – it was James who ended up on 6-foot-10 Kevin Durant.
The 6-7 Crowder has now been tasked with guarding the best player in the world for the majority of the Cavs and Celtics’ meetings and will surely be tasked with defending Durant, allowing James to do what he does best.
“He’s going to make it easy for LeBron,” Head Coach Tyronn Lue said. “Having Jae and LeBron on the floor together at a 3-4. Jae can always guard the tougher opponent, which allows Bron to roam, which he loves to do on defense. Pick off steals and passes, anchor our defense by talking and communicating. It’s going to be a great duo defensively and I’m excited for it.”
According to Nylon Calculus at NBA.com, eight of the Cavaliers’ top-20 lineups showed James at the power forward position, accounting for only 435 minutes. Those lineups featured a defensive rating of 110.1, which would have ranked 28th in the league at a full-time clip.
Offensively, that lineup still outscored opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions despite the lacking defense. Mixing in Crowder to those lineups would presumably improve those defensive numbers greatly even before accounting for the forward being one of the league’s best catch-and-shoot players a year ago.
With small ball being the name of the game in any matchup with the Warriors, Crowder could serve as a game-changer should Thomas get back to full health and replicate Irving’s scoring clip.
The name of the game for Crowder when on the floor with James will be grit.
“For me to play alongside him will be pretty scary for opponents to play alongside us too with how dominant we are on the court and how forceful we play,” he said.