BOSTON -- At the start of the February, it felt like the honeymoon was over.
Jae Crowder, acquired by the Boston Celtics in mid-December as part of the deal that sent Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks, had raised eyebrows early in his Boston tenure and, when Jeff Green was dealt away to Memphis in early January, Crowder elevated to starting small forward.
But his production waned and, in a 10-game span beginning on Jan. 14, Crowder was a team-worse minus-71 in plus/minus and his advanced numbers were an absolute eyesore (team-worst minus-16.8 net rating when he was on the floor). On Feb. 2, coach Brad Stevens shuffled rookie Marcus Smart back into the starting lineup, shifted Evan Turner to his more natural swingman spot, and moved Crowder to a reserve role.
A weird thing happened. Crowder embraced the bench role, got increased playing time at power forward with Boston's depth eroded by injuries, and emerged as a primary reason why Boston has since won six of nine games.
In that nine-game span, Crowder is averaging 12 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal over 26.7 minutes per game. He's carved out his role as a versatile body that Stevens can utilize at both forward spots. His plus-7.1 net rating is the best on the team for players that have been here throughout the nine-game stretch.
While Dallas deals with the fallout from Rondo's shouting match with coach Rick Carlisle, the Celtics must privately look at the quiet Crowder and take great pleasure in what he's accomplishing. The 24-year-old forward on a budget deal has the potential to be a part of this team's young nucleus moving forward and is making the sort of progress that Boston desires to get from all its young players.
Crowder has given up a lot of size to opposing 4s and that's hurt him defending around the basket (opponents are taking advantage of him near the rim while shooting 70.6 percent inside of 6 feet over the past nine games). But when he's able to keep bigs out towards the perimeter, he's had better success (34 percent shooting; two percent below those players' season averages, according to the league's player tracking defensive data).
Crowder has subsisted largely on energy and hustle, giving the team a boost with pure grit on both ends of the floor. That's helped him thrive in small-ball as well. Asked about embracing undersized lineups, Crowder smiled and noted he'll play any position if it means floor time.
"You know I like to play. I’m a player, so I like to play any position, guard any position," said Crowder. "I’m very comfortable and try to talk as much as possible for the other guys as I’m playing behind them so just trying to play team basketball with the guys on the court."
With Boston bringing in three new additions at this year's trade deadline, Crowder joked about being one of the veteran guys on the team now. Everyone has had to be flexible, but maybe no one as much as Crowder. The Celtics utilized a lineup in Wednesday's win over the New York Knicks in which Crowder played the 4 with recently acquired Jonas Jerebko at the 5. The Celtics scored 45 points (on 15 of 22 shooting) in the 13 minutes that duo shared the floor and finished plus-21 in plus/minus for the night.
Crowder, the 34th overall pick in the 2012 draft, is due a $1.2 million qualifying offer before the summer. That will make him a restricted free agent -- one the Celtics wouldn't mind keeping at that budget price tag -- and Boston will be able to match any contract Crowder might receive on the open market.
Crowder doesn't seem concerned about his future at the moment; he's focused on the now. The past three games he's averaged 17.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists over 29 minutes per game while shooting 48.7 percent from the floor and 42.1 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
Is it just another honeymoon? The impending return of Kelly Olynyk will crowd a frontcourt and could change Crowder's role again, but he's shown an ability to help the team whenever he's on the floor.
And maybe the best sign that he's carved out a role here: The team has nicknamed a play after him. A "Crowder" occurs when a player attempts a risky pass. Stevens even joked about it, but told reporters in Phoenix earlier this week, "I'm just giving him a hard time. [Crowder] has been a great addition. We love Jae."
Yes, the honeymoon has most assuredly resumed.