February 18. Salt Lake City, Utah. Jae Crowder uttered perhaps the most important statement of the 2015-16 Celtics season: "We're one superstar."
With that phrase, following Isaiah Thomas' trip to the Toronto All-Star Game, Boston was prepared to propel themselves past the break and continue to establish themselves as one of the best teams in basketball. The comment displayed both where they were at confidence-wise and how vital Crowder had become to the team's development into a group succeeding against all odds at the highest level.
A year earlier many would've laughed at such a statement and dismissed it as the team's delusional confidence, but for the most part Boston had powered itself past doubts thanks in large part to Crowder. Some were ready to believe in this team in particular, one that he had helped craft into a young squad with an identity. The "Celtics Hustle" describes the team's relentless energy, defiance against the league's best, and unwillingness to back down even when trailing by as much as twenty.
With six wins in their next eight games, the public's confidence in Crowder's statement only grew by the game, and suddenly larger visions were within view. From day one, No. 99 had higher ambitions for both himself and the group. No amount of self-empowerment seemed to be delusional to him because he was always ready to carry it over into how he played.
Looking ahead at a game that I had circled on my calendar (or would have, if I had a calendar) two weeks prior, when the team was capping off a stretch of 11 wins in 14 games going back February 2, it looked like Boston was in the driver's seat for the Eastern Conference's No. 3 seed. There was no longer a worry of teams closing in from behind, the Celtics were playing such tightly cohesive team basketball that they would be gunning towards the Toronto Raptors for the No. 2 seed.
That was just two weeks ago, but as we've observed following the Cs, things change in a flash.
Playing for their 15th straight win at home, Crowder charged towards the basket against the Rockets and fell down on his right ankle with a great deal of awkwardness. It made anybody who had realized his emotional importance to the team cringe, as an advocate of him becoming the first captain since Rajon Rondo, I was ready to shed a few tears.
The worst fears were confirmed. With their spiritual centerpiece getting treatment, the team dropped their first home game since January 6, and Crowder was about to be shelved with a high ankle sprain. Two weeks was the prognosis, an optimistic outlook for a player who would undoubtedly fight tirelessly to get back on the court but still worrisome with some of the season's most crucial games ahead.
In the immediate aftermath the losses piled up in the forms of a late meltdown against the Pacers and a demoralizing drop to the Thunder. Then the trip to Toronto (which I had circled weeks prior) came, a trip that now had a different meaning attached to it.
Suddenly a game between two titans of the East (if there is such a thing) turned into an intersection of groups headed in opposite directions. Toronto had boosted its lead over Boston to 7.5 games and was now fixated on chasing the Cavaliers for home court in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Celts had dropped three straight heading in to the game and were hanging on to their positioning as if gripping the edge of a cliff.
These weren't your typical Cs losses either. These Ls were made up of uncharacteristically poor fourth quarters, an abundance of hero-ball, and, worst of all, a lack of hustle. Brad Stevens waved the white flag with nine minutes to go, down 30 points, against Oklahoma City two nights before. Then what was supposed to be the most important road game of the season was an all-around un-Celtics sight. This is a team we've come to know for their unwillingness to die. Even down 20 points with two minutes left we'd expect them to go on a 16-0 run or something and drive us crazy in falling short.
That wasn't the case against OKC or at Toronto. After a 33-point charge in the third quarter pulled the Cs within five points of the Raptors, Boston proceeded to score just two points in the first six minutes of the fourth quarter and wilt away as Kyle Lowry led a 14-2 run and shut Boston's window of opportunity.
I didn't know what team I was watching. For the first time since January 12, the Celtics had lost four straight games. It was the first time since November 24 they lost back-to-back games by double digits, and their 17 fourth-quarter points were their lowest total since December 15 vs. Cleveland (16). It wasn't the Celts we've come to know over the last year.
Worst of all, Stevens called his team "hesitant" following the loss. Hesitant? The team that has inspired the term "hustle" to be used time and time again in broadcasts of their games, that team held back? It couldn't have really been the Celtics.
In many ways, without Crowder, it wasn't.
When Crowder said the Cs were one collective superstar, he actually meant it in a non-metaphorical way. Every player had full confidence in themselves as a star, which is fantastic, but more importantly each owned a special role that they played in to their fullest potential. Rotations had been firmly established before the break and were succeeding immensely. Crowder was an essential factor in both those equations of winning basketball.
Whenever a single superstar is lost, a team's hopes for the season look to be in serious danger. With each Celtics player making up a piece to the puzzle of this collective star, any component lost due to injury damages the whole of the team. When you take out that superstar's heart, that player can't even function, and that's where we are now with Boston. They can't seem to play as a team without their heart and soul.
It comes down to more than Crowder's ability to make buckets, as Stevens said, or even his passing and rebounding abilities. Skill-wise he may be the most complete player on the team, and they miss what he brings from a basketball standpoint, but far beyond that they can't live without the infectious energy that radiated off of him whenever he took the court. They cant live without those positive vibes that have carried the team into competition with the league's best, carried their consistent effort though strenuous back-to-backs, and in the difficult fourth quarters of any game. With Crowder running by your side, it was impossible to hold back, and that's what drove Boston through their success.
No rotational fixes, rookie raising his game, or coaching adjustments by Stevens can emulate the impact of Crowder. They need to make do until he can finally return. Even if it means lost seeding, as the team has already slipped to sixth exactly one week later, Boston's ability to compete this postseason hinges on Crowder more than anybody else.
Luckily, in true Celtics Hustle fashion, his return may be sooner rather than later:
"I'm telling myself I'm good, but they're telling me I'm not...I just feel very sore. And I feel like, I'm close to being able to return, but we're going to take all precautions, take our time with it. But I'm going to keep doing my part and working out and being ready to go."
Hopefully when we look back at this on season's end, it'll be a time that reminded us of Crowder's true value to the team, not an unfortunate disaster that drove the group off a cliff. That may depend on the team's ability to persist into April. Everybody needs to step up for this superstar team to return to full health in stable position.
As Stevens said after the loss in Toronto, "Everybody misses players." We're missing Crowder just a little extra.