Among the many components integral to the Phoenix Suns’ dominant
rise of the past two seasons is their multifaceted wing trio of
Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder and Cameron Johnson.
Devin Booker and Chris Paul are the headlining stars, but those
three forwards are trustworthy shooters, passers and defenders.
While their skill- ets in those categories range across a wide
spectrum, they all factor into the Suns forging a two-way approach
predicated on versatility.
Bridges’ exploits are routinely and justifiably lauded. He
finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting this season
and is regarded as one of the NBA’s best budding wings. Johnson
shot 42.5% beyond the arc and was a finalist for Sixth Man of the
Perhaps sometimes lost in the shuffle of those two — along with
Booker, Paul and Deandre Ayton’s stardom — is the well-traveled
swingman in Crowder. His arrival in Phoenix has coincided with the
team's ascension. His services are a prominent reason that the Suns
lead the Dallas Mavericks 3-2 in their Western Conference semifinal
series ahead of Thursday’s pivotal Game 6.
Through five games, the 31-year-old is averaging 12.6 points,
6.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists on 66.9% True Shooting. He’s shooting
46.7% (14 of 30) from deep and 57.1% (8 of 14) inside the
Phoenix has entrusted him with a bevy of duties offensively,
spanning from screener, to trigger man catalyzing sets, to off-ball
shooter with a pop-gun release. The Mavericks have typically tried
to hide lesser defenders like Luka Doncic, Spencer Dinwiddie and
Davis Bertans on him. So, the Suns have countered by mildly
increasing Crowder's offensive usage via pick-and-pops or other
Whether he’s concluding the play with his own points, or merely
facilitating a mismatch for someone else to flourish, his screens
and capacity to operate off of them have greatly aided Phoenix’s
Crowder is comfortable attacking off the catch to feature his
floater, is a perceptive off-ball nomad and brandishes a snappy
jumper to burn tardy closeouts. Periodically, he’s even displayed
some on-ball juice. Dallas is already grappling and concerned with
slowing Paul, Booker and Ayton. A fourth (or fifth) option as a
release valve against its compromised defenders has proven
burdensome to contain.
Unlike some fifth options, Crowder cannot be entirely neglected
offensively, and teams must pay him some respect. Trying to fight
through his screen or show against it may create an opening for the
ball-handler to pounce. To avoid those scenarios, Dallas is mostly
switching, which leaves Crowder and/or the primary scorer in a
Much like his counterparts on the wings, Crowder provides
ancillary traits (some of which are tied to scoring) that amplify
his offensive value in a background setting. He’s an adept
connective passer and punctuality flows through his general
decision-making ethos. In head coach Monty Williams’
0.5 System that emphasizes quick decision-making, Crowder fits
Most of his passing opportunities are coming against a tilted
defense where he can briefly survey the floor and proceed. Other
times, he’s catching the ball in space or on the move and extends
Complementary offensive players who hammer home advantages
enacted by initiators are critically important. Crowder’s
second-round showing embodies that. Dallas is repeatedly playing
catch-up before possessions even migrate his way, and he’s only
furthering the divide. Historically, his shooting and playmaking
ambitions intermittently grow overzealous, but he’s been quite
reliable in this series.
Similar to his offensive output, Crowder dips his quill in a
number of inks defensively. He’s frequently mucking up drives as a
helper around the nail, and can curtail forays into the paint. At
6-foot-6, 235 pounds, he’s someone Phoenix sics on Jalen Brunson
and contently sends Doncic’s direction in a pinch.
Neither ball-handler is necessarily enduring a poor series, but
they’re both experiencing fewer profits than they did against Utah.
The Suns’ collective upgrade on the wings defensively compared to
the Jazz is a major reason for the discrepancy, and Crowder falls
under that difference.
His strength, mobility and deft hands slyly bother Doncic, while
Brunson’s found tough sledding against Crowder’s burly, durable
frame. On and off the ball, the veteran is around to entangle
himself in the Mavericks’ plans.
During Phoenix’s first-round duel against the New Orleans
Pelicans, Crowder couldn’t toss a penny in a fountain. He shot
33.3% from the floor, buried just two triples and scored 45 points
on 48 shots across six games. Yet his defense, primarily on Brandon
Ingram and CJ McCollum, shined.
Now, the offense has returned and the defense continues to
elicit praise. As Bridges’ offense ebbs and flows in this round,
Crowder’s revival has been a welcomed addition.
There’s never one archetype necessary to construct a title team.
But strong, defensively inclined wings who can cook a few different
dishes offensively are a common thread among many recent Finals
participants. Both with the Heat in 2020 and Suns a season ago,
Crowder is among those teams.
Phoenix isn’t this good without him. He’s only missed the
playoffs once in his 10-year career. Although he’s fortunately been
surrounded by numerous good coaches and stars, there’s correlation
Crowder fills a diverse secondary role and performs it well,
which is all the Suns have ever needed from him.