For the twelfth consecutive season, the Boston Celtics are on the outside looking in at The NBA Finals. While the C’s fell short of Banner 18 once again, numerous players with ties to the Celtics and Massachusetts are competing in this year’s championship series starring the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks. Boston faithful have a few familiar faces to root for in Pat Connaughton, Jae Crowder, Abdel Nader, Jeff Teague, and E’Twaun Moore. Not all five names have seen consistent run, but it’s worth reviewing the top performers from each side with a Celtics/Massachusetts background.
Pat Connaughton: a sharp-shooting sixth man
Connaughton has never played a single game as a Boston Celtic (yet). Why mention him here then? Connaughton was born and raised in Arlington, Massachusetts, and attended St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers. He’s a Mass boy through and through. And, more importantly, Connaughton’s floor-spacing and rebounding chops have been on full display in The Finals.
Connaughton was superb during Games 1 and 2 as he averaged 11 points, 4.5 rebounds, and went a combined 6-for-13 from deep. Game 2 was undoubtedly his best Finals performance, though, which saw him drop 14 points and snag seven rebounds. Connaughton was a massive beneficiary of drive-and-kick sequences in Game 2 — all four of his made treys were off the catch and assisted by either Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Jrue Holiday. Shooting 38.4% on 3.8 standstill threes per game this postseason, Connaughton has proven himself to be a picture-perfect offensive fit alongside the heads of the snake in Milwaukee, who have a penchant for driving to the rim and collapsing the defense.
Additionally, Connaughton’s been a sneaky-good rebounder his entire career. He has ranked in the 85th percentile or better in defensive rebounding percentage every year but one, per Cleaning the Glass. A natural-born athlete, it’s Connaughton’s vertical leap and tenacity that have cemented his place among the upper-echelon rebounding wings. His seven boards in Game 2 topped all Bucks not named Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez. Milwaukee leads the entire league in rebounds this postseason because they do it collectively as a unit.
Jae Crowder: a defensive stalwart who caught fire from beyond the arc in Game 3
It doesn’t seem all that long ago when Crowder spearheaded those overachieving Celtics teams of the mid-2010’s alongside Isaiah Thomas. Crowder, an in-your-face type player and personality, is quite the polarizing topic among Boston fans. Despite Crowder’s on-the-court theatrics, he is undoubtedly a winner; he has now reached the Finals each of the last two seasons, the year prior with the Miami Heat. Sure, he had running mates like Chris Paul and DeAndre Ayton help guide him to the promised land, but make no mistake about it: the Suns would not be two wins away from a title if not for Crowder’s presence.
Phoenix is a switch-heavy defensive team. This means their players swap individual assignments to combat the pick-and-roll. At 6’6” and weighing in at 235 pounds, Crowder is well-equipped to switch onto a cornucopia of positions and has done just that all series long. He’s already registered multiple possessions checking just about everyone in the Bucks’ rotation. Crowder has defended all player archetypes imaginable, from behemoths like Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis to sweet-shooting wings such as Bryn Forbes and Connaughton.
The advanced metrics allude to the former Celtics’ palpable impact in preventing scores. Crowder has participated in a total of 1201 defensive possessions this postseason. During those possessions, opponents mustered an effective field-goal percentage of just 49.2%, which ranks in the 92nd percentile among wings who suited up in the playoffs, according to Cleaning the Glass. Crowder also boasts the top average plus/minus of any Sun for the series with a +6. A -11 after Game 3’s 20-point loss destroyed what was a +14.5 plus/minus, but to be ahead of Paul, Ayton, and Devin Booker while playing a similar amount of minutes is a testament to Crowder being the best defender on a Suns squad rife with irritants.
Crowder is as streaky a three-point shooter as they come. His accuracy from downtown has fluctuated throughout his career, from near-elite clips with Boston to the high 20’s during his cup of tea as a Memphis Grizzly. Just five days removed from an 0-for-5 performance from deep, Crowder buried six of seven triples in the Game 3 loss. Crowder was the only Phoenix player to notch more than one three made in a blowout with few positive takeaways for the Suns. Having converted nine of his 12 attempted threes since Game 2, expect Crowder to let it fly early and often in Game 4.
Crowder has always received backlash for his tendency to shoot treys at a high volume, even if it’s not his night. But if this proves anything, it’s that Crowder doesn’t lack confidence, and those types of players are who teams want in the game with a championship at stake. Crowder checks that all-important box and then some.