Jae Crowder was angry. He did not hide it.
During the two years he had spent in Boston, he developed a rapport with Celtics fans, who appreciated the guts-and-hustle style they saw after he arrived from Dallas in the 2014 Rajon Rondo trade—it helped, too, that Rondo was a disaster with the Mavericks and Crowder was the only player to flourish after that deal went through. He was a reliable rotation player on rebuilding team in his first Celtics season and a starter on a playoff bunch by his second year. He had even had Boston’s back in the summer of 2016, lambasting free-agent Kevin Durant when he rejected the Celtics to sign with the Warriors, calling it a, “slap in the face.”
But on a cold night in early January 2017, with the Jazz in town, Crowder and Boston’s backers had a falling out. With rumors long bubbling that the Celtics would make a run at Utah star Gordon Hayward, who had been coached by the Celtics’ Brad Stevens in college at Butler and would be a free agent that summer, fans at the TD Garden did something that surely made Red Auerbach do a 360-degree roll at his final resting place in the King David Memorial Garden cemetery: They cheered for Hayward.
Yes, during a home game, the locals kissed up to an opposing player in hopes of nudging him to bolt out of Utah for Boston. No one should have liked that. Crowder had the gumption to say it.
“I think that was a sign of disrespect to me from the fans,” Crowder said at the time. “That sparked a little fire in me.”
He repeated the point on Twitter, lest we thought it was only an emotional reaction.
Now with the Heat, Crowder went up against his old team on Tuesday night in the Eastern Conference finals, and the performance he gave was a near-perfect exercise in well-timed vengeance, so much so that the only thing that would have made it better would have been if it had been played in front of those Garden fans. Alas, he would have to exact his retribution from the NBA’s bubble setting at the Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, without fans on hand.
Still, it had to be sweet: Crowder was 5-of-9 from the 3-point line for the Heat, including one from the left wing to give the Heat a lead in overtime, and added two makes at the rim to finish with 22 points, second on the Heat’s scoring tally behind Goran Dragic.
And where was Hayward? Well, he was where he has been for much of his Celtics career, especially in the postseason—in street clothes, sidelined with injury. For the second time in three seasons with the Celtics, Hayward is a nonfactor because of injury, after suffering a Grade III ankle sprain in Boston’s playoff opener against Philadelphia. He has returned to the bubble, has been practicing, and the Celtics expect to have him back against Miami. For now, though, Hayward’s total 2020 playoff contribution has been 12 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists.
Jae Crowder: ‘I’ll Kick Your Butt Then Go Have Lunch With You’
Crowder, to his credit, spoke mostly about reverent competitiveness when it comes to the Celtics as an organization. His beef was never with the franchise. There are only two players left from Crowder’s last Boston team—Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown—but Stevens is still in place, as is most of his staff.
“I do have relationships there,” Crowder said ahead of the start of the series. “It’s competition, man. Once I get on the court, I’ve been on the court with my own brother and tried to rip his head off, so that says what type of competitor I am. I just like to win. No hard feelings. I’ll still go eat lunch with you after, but I’ll kick your butt and then go have lunch with you. That’s what type of competitor I am. Obviously, those guys really, really know me very well and know that’s what I’m about. ”
It was not, after all, his teammates or coaches who had drawn Crowder’s ire three-plus years ago. It was the folks in the stands, the ones showing appreciation for a visiting player. And for Crowder, it went a bit deeper even—it was clear at the time that for the Celtics to acquire Hayward, they probably would have to get rid of Crowder, who had signed a five-year, $35 million contract in 2015. That was salt in the wound. From Crowder’s perspective, by wooing Hayward with their applause, Celtics fans were saying, “Gordon, we want you over this Crowder fellow.”
That is exactly what happened. Crowder was dealt to Cleveland as part of the Kyrie Irving trade a little more than a month after the Hayward signing in the summer of 2017. He has bounced from three teams in two years since then, but Miami has been an ideal fit for his rough-and-tumble style of play—the Heat are a team built on conditioning and physicality as much as talent, and Crowder fits that bill.
The Heat got both Crowder and wing Andre Iguodala in a February deal with Memphis, and Stevens pointed to that move as the moment Miami went from a decent playoff team to a championship contender.
“The Iguodala and Crowder acquisitions at the trade deadline were huge,” Stevens told reporters in a press conference this week. “And you knew right when they happened. Like, I think the opportunity for them to play small ball, with even more versatility, and to surround those great shooters with more skill, but also guys that could guard the best players on the other teams for multiple possessions for end of games, or those types of things, has added a great deal to their team.”
Crowder added a great deal in Game 1. If he was looking for some on-court retribution for the Hayward incident, he was patient in taking it—in seven games against the Celtics after he was traded, Crowder had averaged 9.9 points, shooting just 36.6% from the field and 25.6% from the 3-point line. He erased that underwhelming history in just one game on Tuesday night.
He has been a stalwart as a shooter in the Heat’s impressive playoff run, which has now seen them win nine of 10 games. Crowder has made at least two 3-pointers in every playoff game, and at least three in his last six games. He is shooting 41.7% from the arc (well above his career 34.0% mark). The 22 points he scored were the fourth-most in his 61 career playoff games and the most he posted in any game for the Heat.
Despite that production, the game was played on a razor’s edge, with Bam Adebayo’s block of Jayson Tatum’s dunk attempt in overtime the deciding factor. After the game, Crowder described the win: “Hard as heck.”
He expected that from his old team, which made the win even more satisfying. He might have liked to do it in front of the Boston fans, to get a truly full helping of revenge, but when it comes to the players and staff in green, Crowder maintains a healthy appreciation.
“May the best man win,” he said. “There’s much respect between the two of us, same coaching staff pretty much, a couple of players I played with over there. There’s definitely respect between the two.″