<
>

Celtics' Jae Crowder flirting with 50-40-90 club, more interested in wins

WALTHAM, Mass. -- After the Boston Celtics broke their huddle following Tuesday's afternoon workout, Jae Crowder made a beeline to one corner of the practice court with a handful of teammates following in the same direction. One by one, they stepped onto the court for their chance to challenge Crowder in his typical post-practice 3-point shooting contests.

First, Jonas Jerebko -- Crowder's most frequent and stiffest competition -- then Jaylen Brown and, finally, Marcus Smart, who got two turns because Crowder so thoroughly dominated the first matchup.

"Those guys know I’m shooting the ball well, so everybody wants a shot at it," said Crowder, who was edged by both Jerebko and Brown (a rare upset by the rookie, who playfully savored the victory). Crowder rallied with two wins over Smart before being one of the last Boston players to exit the floor.

"That just keeps me sharp," he said. "Keeps me game-ready. I didn’t practice much [Tuesday], but I wanted to shoot the ball a lot, so that's what happened."

Overshadowed by Isaiah Thomas' otherworldly offensive exploits this season, Crowder has quietly positioned himself for a charge at the 50-40-90 club, an exclusive gathering of only seven NBA players who have finished the season with shooting percentages better than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and 90 percent at the free throw line.

Even when Crowder's numbers hovered around those benchmarks earlier in the season, it seemed unlikely he could maintain them for an honest-to-goodness charge at becoming the group's eighth member. But Crowder now has a half-season of play under his belt and sits at 48.9 percent from the field, 43.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and 88.2 percent at the free throw line (three missed freebies in Monday's victory over the Pistons pulled him under back under 90 percent after he made 30 of his first 31 attempts in January).

In typical Crowder fashion, he was largely uninterested when it was suggested to him Tuesday that he's flirting with the 50-40-90 club. He said he's aware of the fraternity but wasn't certain just how close he was to a membership, and it's not on his list of goals this season.

"I'm interested in winning games and trying to play good," Crowder said.

Still, Crowder's numbers are somewhat improbable. This is a player who, before this season, had career averages of 42.6 percent from the field, 32.4 percent beyond the 3-point arc and 77.4 percent at the free throw line over his first four NBA seasons.

That means Crowder is shooting 6.3 percent above his previous career average from the field, 10.9 percent above his previous 3-point percentage and 10.8 percent above his previous free throw percentage.

The addition of Al Horford this summer added another offensive weapon for a Boston team that now ranks fifth in the NBA in offensive rating, up eight spots from a year ago. The attention being paid to Thomas has generated a lot of quality looks for Boston's floor-stretchers, and Crowder is just one player to capitalize.

But that still doesn't quite explain such pronounced leaps in efficiency. So what's the difference this season for Crowder?

"Mindset, and just staying in the gym," he said. "Even when times are tough, you just gotta stay in the gym and know it’s going to work out. I didn’t finish the season last year like I wanted to shooting the ball. It just drives me to stay in the gym and have a different mindset. Of course, be confident in your shot and be confident in your work. I think that’s a tribute to what you see now."

For the season, Crowder is averaging 14.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1 steal over 32.4 minutes per game. Crowder entered Tuesday's action ranked fifth in the league in 3-point percentage and 11th in free throw percentage. He ranks 15th in the NBA in 2-point shots at 56.1 percent. Considering that more than half of Crowder's shots (56.4 percent) this season have been 3-pointers, it's impressive that he has kept his overall shooting percentage near 50 percent.

Crowder is averaging 1.152 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports tracking. That ranks him in the 97th percentile among the league's 450 players. Narrow that list to all players with at least 350 plays finished, and Crowder is fourth among 194 qualifiers, sitting behind only Otto Porter Jr. (1.212), Kevin Durant (1.185) and Nick Young (1.16). Crowder finished 30th in the NBA at 1.038 points per play last season.

Thomas has been affectionately dubbed "The King in the Fourth" for his final-frame heroics. Crowder has given Boston a jolt at the start of halves lately, including averaging 9 points per game in the first quarter of his past three games.

"[Crowder is] making shots, he’s being aggressive from the jump, and we need him to be like that throughout the whole season," Thomas said. "He’s in a good rhythm right now, and hopefully, he stays in that."

Crowder has seemingly elevated his defensive play lately as well. After barely missing a spot on the All-Defense second-team last season, Crowder's advanced defensive numbers haven't been quite as glossy this season. But maybe further removed from the ankle sprain that cost him eight games in November, Crowder looks more like the guy who embraced defending the best wings in the NBA.

Crowder's overall value is best reflected in Boston's on/off court splits. Crowder has the best net rating on Boston's roster with the Celtics a plus-8.7 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court. The Celtics are a minus-4.1 when he's on the bench, and he's the only Boston player in the negative this season.

ESPN's Real Plus/Minus metric ranks Crowder tops on the Celtics and 17th overall. Among small forwards, Crowder sits sixth in RPM behind only an All-Star quintet of Jimmy Butler, LeBron James, Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

With such efficiency this season, Crowder was playfully asked if he ever wishes Thomas would tone down his offensive outbursts so he could get some of the spotlight for Boston's success.

"I don’t worry about the stat line," Crowder said. "I don’t worry about that stuff. I just worry about winning ballgames and trying to win championships. That’s it."