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Despite ankle injury, Jae Crowder making impact on Celtics-Hawks series

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics swingman Jae Crowder is not himself. That much has been obvious since he made a surprisingly early return from a high ankle sprain on the final day of March. His jump shot is off, and he can't move as quickly as he'd like when switched onto smaller guards.

Crowder, regarded at times this season as Boston's most impactful two-way player, suggested before Game 2 that he's operating at roughly 75 to 80 percent of his typical efficiency because of the ankle injury (an injury that typically sidelines players for at least four to six weeks). He refuses to use it as an excuse. Given the chance to blame his offensive struggles on the ankle after a dismal 1-for-9 shooting performance on Tuesday night, the whisper-quiet Crowder simply replied, "I’ll be ready Game 3."

What's maybe most impressive as Crowder fights his body is the impact he's maintained on the defensive end. Yes, he's had some lapses, including a notable play late in Game 1 when, switched onto speedy point guard Jeff Teague, he couldn't stop an isolation drive that helped the Hawks emerge with a win. But Crowder has taken the challenge of guarding Paul Millsap, someone who was arguably one of the top 10 players in the league this season and an All-NBA candidate, and kept him from taking over games the way he did during the regular season against the Celtics.

Consider this: No Celtics defender has guarded Millsap more than Crowder this series. Crowder has defended Millsap on 11 plays finished and Millsap is 1-for-10 with a mere two points against Crowder, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That doesn't even account for Crowder's off-the-ball work in preventing Millsap from getting opportunities.

Millsap averaged 17.1 points, 9 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 1.7 blocks over 32.7 minutes per game during the regular season and was the only NBA player who led his team in points, rebounds, steals and blocked shots. Through two postseason games, Millsap has been limited to 9 points, 7 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, and 0.5 steals thanks in large part to Crowder's efforts.

The flip side? Crowder is a mere 2-for-10 on field goals when defended by Millsap. Crowder's two points on 11.1 percent shooting on Tuesday night tied his worst marks of the season. Even in the seven games he played at the end of the regular season, Crowder averaged 12.7 points on 36.4 percent shooting (down from season marks of 14.2 points on 44.3 percent shooting).

While much of Boston's roster is battered and bruised, the team understands that Crowder is gutting through this postseason. Without him, they might have been even less competitive in these two games.

"It’s tough because that ankle injury set him back," said All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas. "Conditioning-wise, getting your rhythm back. But he’s a fighter; he's a warrior -- a guy who will continue to fight and make no excuses.

"He helps us, even when he’s not scoring, by defending multiple positions, by spacing the floor because he can make shots. He has to continue to be confident in himself and do what he does best. He’ll be all right. I think this weekend, once we get this home court, he’ll get that confidence back to looking for his shots. We need that."

Through the first two games of the postseason, Crowder is limiting his opponents to 27.3 percent shooting (6 of 22 overall). He's allowing a mere 0.58 points per play for a Boston team that allows 0.874 points per play overall this series.

"Jae has just not been the same player,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said during his weekly call to Boston sports radio 98.5 the Sports Hub on Thursday. “As we all know by watching the games, since he’s come back from his injury, he’s fighting through it; he’s gutting it out.”

The absence of guard Avery Bradley leaves Crowder as maybe Boston's second-best scoring option behind Thomas, which has made things even more difficult for Crowder. He said he's still getting treatment multiple times per day and will continue to play through the lingering discomfort.

"There’s still some stuff I’m capable of doing which I can’t do now," Crowder said. "But it is what it is. I’m able to play with it and I’m able to fight through it, and I’ll be fine."

Crowder still holds himself -- and his teammates -- to high standards. He's expressed frustration with the way the team has played, particularly at the start of games, this series.

"[The slow starts are] inexcusable," Crowder said. "We’ve had too good of a year to go out the way we’ve been going out the past few games, starting with the Charlotte game, when it became meaningful. We’ve just got to get back to what we do and for the most part settle down in the first quarter and get good looks and be patient and be mature at the offensive end."