As end nears for Rondo in Dallas, Crowder is embraced in Boston

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WALTHAM, Mass. -- Just a couple hours before Rick Carlisle would suggest that suspected malcontent Rajon Rondo had likely played his last game for the Dallas Mavericks, Jae Crowder -- one of three players acquired by the Boston Celtics in exchange for Rondo in mid-December -- stood inside a media scrum offering the sort of optimistic outlook that has endeared him so quickly in these parts.

Who could have imagined this? Four months after the shocking in-season trade that was supposed to cement the Mavericks as a title contender and continue Boston's lottery-bound overhaul, both teams stand at a very similar spot in their playoff quests, but with completely different emotions.

Both seventh-seeded Boston and Dallas are down 2-0 in their respective first-round series, but the Mavericks are a colossal disappointment and many suspect Rondo's attitude and underwhelming performance are more likely reasons for his current furlough. The Celtics face an uphill battle against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it's guys like Crowder, with his unwillingness to back down from players like LeBron James, who give Boston fans hope that these Celtics can fight their way back into the series.

"I feel like we've got a great chance of winning Game 3," Crowder said after Wednesday's off-day workout at the Celtics' practice facility. "We've been in the game. I think we're due for a win now, especially in front of the home crowd. They're going to give us great energy so I feel good going into it.

Added Crowder: "Why wouldn't I [be confident]? We've got a great group of guys and we know what we've got to do to win the game. I'm always confident in myself and in my teammates. That's me."

With Rondo's departure seemingly impending, all the Mavericks have remaining from the mid-December trade with Boston is rookie Dwight Powell. The Celtics still have Crowder, Dallas' 2016 first-round pick (protected spots 1-7), Minnesota's 2016 first-round pick (protected spots 1-12; acquired from Phoenix in a swap for Brandan Wright), Dallas' 2016 second-round pick, and a hefty trade exception for Rondo's $12.9 million salary.

What really stands out is the way Celtics fans have embraced Crowder and his full-throttle mentality. While Dallas fans seem willing to pack Rondo's bags, Celtics supporters often tell president Danny Ainge to do whatever it takes to keep the gritty 24-year-old Crowder, a restricted free agent this summer, as part of Boston's young core.

Why has this fan base embraced him? From the moment he arrived, Crowder has stressed a desire to get this team to the playoffs. That notion seemed a bit foolish in mid-December, but Crowder never relented in that desire. His versatility off the Boston bench played a big part in the Celtics surging to the seventh seed with inspired play in the second half of the season.

In this first-round series with the Cavaliers, Crowder has embraced the challenge of covering James -- not unlike when undersized Rondo used to park himself near James' hip when Boston had few answers in stopping the four-time MVP in past playoff series. Crowder hasn't been perfect and the Celtics have provided him plenty of help in trying to limit James, but it's his attitude about the process that resonates.

"It's the biggest challenge I think I've ever took on and I'm pretty sure -- anybody else ever guarding him in the playoffs -- it's a great challenge," Crowder said. "He's a great offensive player and he knows the game so well. You just have to make it as tough as possible."

At one point in the second half of Tuesday's Game 2, Crowder and James bumped shoulders after a whistle, with Crowder seemingly unwilling to back down to a player who coach Brad Stevens has repeatedly called the best in the game. Crowder downplayed the brief interaction Tuesday and was asked Wednesday about playing against Cleveland's physicality.

Crowder didn't back down again.

"Nobody on that team is intimidating," he said. "We're all NBA basketball players. We're not intimidated."

Yes, Crowder isn't afraid to poke the bear. After Game 1, he boldly noted that Cleveland's defense is exploitable. He reaffirmed that belief on Wednesday, too.

"If you remember, I said after Game 1 they have holes in their defense; they're not the best defensive team," Crowder said. "We've just got to take advantage of it as much as possible."

Crowder is averaging 10 points, 5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1 steal over 26.5 minutes per game through two postseason games. There's a vocal group of fans who would like to see his minutes rise, including those who believe he should start games to help bolster Boston's defense against the high-powered Cavaliers.

Regardless of how long Boston is able to stick around in the playoffs, this postseason glimpse has only cemented the notion that Crowder is the sort of player who can really help the Celtics moving forward. There are those who envision a DeMarre Carroll-type future for Crowder, providing versatility and a constantly developing presence at the wing position.

Part of what Boston's brass is using the postseason to gauge is which players are capable of rising to the challenge on the big stage and deserve to be part of the team's core moving forward.

Ainge is fond of Crowder's play.

"I've always liked Jae," Ainge said Wednesday. "He's a tough, hard-nosed kid. We knew he would come out and battle, regardless of who he was playing against."

Crowder said late in the season that he's not focused on his future, just getting Boston into the playoffs. After declaring he was ready to lead his team into war before the Cavaliers series, Crowder has further narrowed his focus the past week.

"I don't pick up my phone as much in the playoffs, I'll tell you that," he said. "I don't watch the TV as much. But I watch a lot of film. I have my guy I talk to and he was out in Cleveland with me. We just talk about the game. He was just saying we were just a few plays away from winning the game. That's all I can say -- we were a few plays away from winning both games. We don't want to sit back and think 'what if' when it's all over. So we want to take control of this series and try to get the next game."

Yes, Crowder will likely be competing in postseason basketball longer than Rondo this season. Whoddathunkit back in December?