WALTHAM, Mass. -- When Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens sketches up a late-game play, there's always multiple options to ensure his team gets a quality look regardless of how the defense reacts to the initial action.
When Jae Crowder walked onto the floor on Monday night with his team down two and under a minute to play in a nail-biter against the visiting Utah Jazz, he knew the ball was likely coming his way and he had multiple options in his mind, but they all ended the same way: with him taking the big-moment shot.
When All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas took a high handoff from Jared Sullinger and turned the corner toward the paint, the Jazz defense sucked in to block his path. Crowder, who had set a back pick for Thomas, watched his defender roam to help on Thomas and prevent Sullinger from rolling, and then Crowder quietly drifted to his right wing sweet spot. When Thomas saw three green jerseys in front of him, he stopped, pivoted and threw the ball back out to Crowder, who was impossibly open.
Crowder calmly drained the 3-point shot that pushed Boston out front and ultimately lifted the team to a 100-95 triumph and the Celtics' 11th straight home win. With the make, Crowder has now produced five game-tying or go-ahead field goals with less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter or overtime this season. That's just one less make than a trio of players tied atop the league in Kevin Durant, Gordon Hayward, and Monta Ellis. What's more, his five makes are equal to that produced by MVP-caliber players like Stephen Curry, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis.
But here's maybe the more noteworthy part: Crowder is 5-of-6 shooting overall in that late-game scenario, a ridiculous 83.3 percent. The league average on those sort of shots is a measly 32.5 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. Of the trio with six late-game makes, Hayward owns the best overall percentage of the bunch at 54.5 percent, a number he dropped to on Monday night when Avery Bradley's block ensured Crowder's triple stood up as the winning points.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has often said that the one thing all teams are seeking are closers -- players who want the ball in crunch time and can deliver much-needed baskets. Boston probably didn't know it had found another closer when it acquired Crowder in December 2014, but he has evolved into one of the most clutch late-game shooters, hammering home another big basket on Monday night.
"I was preparing myself to take that shot," Crowder said while noting he was the first option on the play. "I told myself, if [Derrick Favors] cheats off a little bit, I'm going to take the 3, and if he's on me, I'm going to drive it and tie the game up. I was playing whatever the defense gives me at that point."
Crowder, a hoodie drawn tight over his head after Tuesday's practice, couldn't hide a smile when asked why he has been so effective in those crunch-time situations.
"I just like to win," he said. "I want to make the plays that put us over the top. Whether it be a rebound, steal, shot -- whatever it takes to win the ball game, I'm down for. That's the way I'm built."
In the final minute of one-possession games this season, Crowder is shooting a league-best 77.8 percent (7-of-9 overall, 3-of-4 3-pointers) among those with at least five attempts. Crowder has produced late-game winners over the Philadelphia 76ers (a layup after a steal), Washington Wizards (a post-up led to a layup) and now the Jazz. So forgive Crowder when, asked after Monday's game how many winners he had produced this season, he shrugged and offered, "I don't know. I lost count."
Crowder has been spectacular this season, in clutch time and otherwise. You can make the case that he has been Boston's best two-way player, especially given his eagerness to defend some of the league's top scoring forwards, like Carmelo Anthony and James. Crowder has actually shuffled ahead of Anthony in ESPN's Real Plus/Minus rankings, sitting fifth among all small forwards and behind only the All-Star quartet of Kawhi Leonard, James, Durant, and Paul George.
What's more, Crowder tops Boston's roster in RPM wins -- an estimate of the number of wins each player has contributed to his team's win total -- at 8.18. That's a number that ranks him 19th in the entire NBA.
Crowder has blossomed in Boston, taking full advantage of the opportunity presented to him since he arrived as part of the deal that sent Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks.
"I don't know if he's improved that much or if the opportunity has given him the opportunity to show more. Sometimes in this league, it's about opportunity," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "[Crowder] wasn't playing much in Dallas, or was playing more spot opportunities. And now he's more than a regular rotation player here, he's a starter and one of our key contributors. A lot of times it's opportunity, then, one thing that Jae does is he works at a very, very good rate on his game. And I think he works, really, on the things that apply to his game, and I think that's been beneficial."
Crowder said Tuesday that he has never really stopped to reflect on how things might be different if the Celtics hadn't snagged him. But he recognizes the opportunity that Boston gave him and how he has embraced it.
"It's probably the best thing that could have happened to me and my career," Crowder said. "When I first came over, I didn't know what to expect, but everything has worked out, and we're going in the right direction."
"I'm very grateful," he added. "I think last year I was more stunned than anything [by the trade], but this year, I'm so locked in and so focused on staying in the moment."