Long hair, does care: Jae Crowder energizes Celtics

WALTHAM, Mass. -- The white rubber bracelet on his wrist reads, "Long hair, don't care," but it's a lie. Jae Crowder cares. He cares a lot.

The Boston Celtics found that out shortly after his arrival last season. Boston dropped seven of its first eight games after Crowder came over from the Dallas Mavericks as what many deemed a throw-in to the Rajon Rondo blockbuster, and he was seething at all the losing. Then, one day at practice, he completely lost it.

"I went crazy," admitted Crowder. "I lost my mind here. At practice, I pulled [coach] Brad [Stevens] to the side and asked him, ‘What are we trying to do here? Are we tanking?' And Brad was like, ‘No, no, you don’t have to worry about tanking. I want to win games. We aren’t winning right now, but I want to win games.’"

Crowder didn't stop with Stevens. He proceeded to shake down Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, his teammates, ball boys -- anyone who might be able to tell him exactly what the master plan was for these rebuilding Celtics.

Nine months later, that relentless desire to win temporarily quenched after helping the Celtics complete an improbable second-half playoff surge and rewarded for his efforts with a five-year, $35 million contract, the soft-spoken Crowder can smile while recalling that January outburst.

"I don’t like losing, man," said Crowder. "I play this game to win. I never in my life played to lose. I don’t know what that feels like. I don’t play like that. I play to win. I felt like that the locker room here was kind of sulking right when I got here. It was sad to be in a professional locker room like that. I didn’t like it. I just wanted to come in each and every day and put my work in and hopefully make guys feed off my energy and take it from there.

"I was coming from Dallas. Dallas was top-notch professional and they wanted to win every game. And I felt like we had lost a few and the locker room was just so [content with losing]. I was like, ‘What the f--- am I in?’ I don't understand this. This is new to me. I didn’t like that. I thank Dallas for that. Kudos to Dallas because they put that [winning mentality] in me even more than what I already had.

"When you want to win, man, when you’re in a winning organization, you take pride in it. And when you lose, you let everybody know you lost. You’re not walking around happy."

Crowder swells with pride now looking around Boston's bustling practice facility. He's bullish about a Boston team that returned much of its core from last year's playoff surge and added veteran big men David Lee and Amir Johnson this summer. He is realistic with his expectations, but believes the Celtics will take another step forward this year and sets a return to the playoffs as the minimum benchmark.

The 25-year-old Crowder admits he's as content now as he's ever been in his brief pro career. The summer offered a chance to get settled in Boston after his in-season arrival and he's putting down some roots now with the security of a long-term contract. He's excited to watch this Boston team navigate the climb back to contender status.

The Celtics open their 2015-16 season on Wednesday night with a visit from the Philadelphia 76ers. Crowder is eager to play games that mean something again.

"We’re getting better each and every day," said Crowder. "We take practices very serious. We’ve got a great group of guys, all listening and buying into what Brad is talking about. We’re just trying to get better. As the preseason went on, we felt like we we're striving in the right direction. We’re ready to get this started."

It all started in the driveway

Crowder, who attacks Twitter as if his caps lock key is defective, often finishes his tweets with the hashtag "#ITALLSTARTEDINTHEDRIVEWAY." Asked to explain how those driveway games unfolded as a kid, Crowder, who wasn't the wall of muscle he is now, says, "No fouls called. I’m the youngest guy on the court and barely winning sometimes. But when I do, I let everybody know."

He still approaches the NBA level with the same underdog mentality, even though the Celtics were particularly smitten that he was part of the return haul in the Rondo deal (then again, Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson and the draft picks were initially the more noteworthy parts of the package).

The Celtics moved both Wright (to Phoenix for a first-round pick) and Nelson (to Denver for the right to waive Nate Robinson) before mid-January. Asked if he's surprised that he's the only player who endured from the deal, Crowder said, "I don’t think those guys were happy. I felt that vibe on the way here to Boston. We’re all trying to be professional, but I was a little bit more excited than those guys."

The Celtics spotlighted Crowder's versatility by playing him at power forward on a second unit that included fellow in-season addition Isaiah Thomas and Boston caught fire in the second half of the season, winning 24 of its final 36 games while surging to the seventh seed in the East. By the final game of Boston's brief postseason stay, Crowder had elevated to a starting role.

A restricted free agent this past summer, the Celtics didn't waste any time in hammering out the deal that will pay Crowder an average annual value of $7 million. It's a bargain deal now and should only look better over time with a salary cap that is set to soar.

"He’s a big part of our future and we really like the element of versatility that he brings of being able to play the 2, the 3, the 4," Ainge said of Crowder. "He defend lots of positions and bring a lot of passion and intensity to the game."

Mr. Efficiency

Crowder put together a modest preseason this month while averaging 8.3 points, 4 rebounds and 2.3 assists over 19.7 minutes per game in six appearances. The advanced numbers reflect Crowder's larger impact as his net rating -- the difference between the team's offensive (107.2) and defensive (89.6) ratings per 100 possessions -- was plus-17.6.

Dig deeper into those advanced numbers and Crowder's performance is even more remarkable. According to Synergy Sports data, Crowder allowed only 21 points on 44 total plays defended. What's more, opponents shot only 22.5 percent against him, including two shutdown-caliber performances against Carmelo Anthony. Of the 130 players who defended at least 40 plays this preseason, Crowder ranked first allowing only 0.477 points per play.

Maybe more noteworthy was Crowder's offensive exploits. He took only 26 shots this preseason, but generated 50 points. Synergy data graded him at a team-best 1.282 points per play overall. For all players with at least 35 offensive plays finished this preseason, Crowder ranked No. 2 behind only Washington's Otto Porter (1.373 points per possession) out of a whopping 250 qualifiers.

Informed of his high-efficiency offense, Crowder said, "I don’t force it too often. But I do want my touches and I do want to be involved in the offense. ... I watch a lot of film and I know where my spots are going to be on the offensive end."

Crowder knows those spots will often come beyond the 3-point arc and he spent much of the summer working on that shot. He added a bit more arc to his attempts while noting he was "embarrassed" and "inspired" after shooting just 28.2 percent from distance after arriving in Boston.

Crowder dubbed himself the "vocal point" of the defense and -- maybe it was just a malapropism -- but it's an accurate description for a player who can often be heard directing the defense. There was a drill during training camp in which Crowder and newcomer Johnson teamed up to generate a ridiculous string of stops during 3-on-2 drills and Crowder screamed so loudly that each curse word could be heard clearly by the media hovering behind glass above the practice court.

Crowder sprained his thumb during the preseason and sat out a game, but he deemed himself in full health. That includes his knee, which Crowder sprained when he was clocked by J.R. Smith in Game 4 of Cleveland's first-round sweep.

Crowder is expected to be the team's starting small forward and he'll join Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart to form a tenacious perimeter trio that Stevens believes can set the defensive tone at the start of games -- or as Crowder dubs it, "punching first."

Said Smart: "Jae is one of the top competitors in this league, for sure. The way he approaches every game and practices, he comes out and he’s ready to play every day. You gotta respect a guy like that."

Yes, maybe those wristbands ought to read, "Long hair, does care."