BOSTON -- Only a couple months separated Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas’ arrival in Boston in 2014-15. They were two solid players, but it wasn't thought they'd do anything more than help the Celtics be competitive in what everyone anticipated would be a second straight playoff-less season.
And then came Thomas’ emergence as an All-Star caliber scorer, which coincided with Crowder blossoming into a promising 3-and-D player. Not only did the Celtics make the playoffs that season but, barely two years after they joined them, the C's advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Their play was instrumental in the Celts' improvement, which made them attractive trade targets. So when the Celtics had the chance to acquire Kyrie Irving, Thomas and Crowder were part of the package they sent to Cleveland.
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- . . . nor was Jae Crowder
Filling the void Thomas and Crowder left in terms of their statistics won’t be easy. But it's doable, what with a roster that now includes Irving, All-Star Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, and blossoming young talent like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Not to mention Marcus Smart.
However, replacing Crowder's and Thomas’ toughness and their us-against-the-world grit and temperament will be challenging.
Their impact shortly after arriving in Boston was undeniable.
Crowder, who came via a trade from Dallas that centered around getting Rajon Rondo to the Mavericks, eventually worked his way into the starting lineup. He was a key cog in Boston’s 30-28 finish in 2014-15.
Thomas didn’t get to Boston until the middle of February via a trade with the Phoenix Suns. But his instant scoring -- first off the bench and later as a starter -- helped spark the C's to 20 wins in their last 30 games.
That success seemed to do more than just rejuvenate the Celtics and get them on a winning track. It also provided a major jolt to both players' careers, which up to that point had not really taken off.
Some of the most memorable moments in Boston's rise to contender status came about because of Thomas and Crowder.
On the eve of getting swept in the first round of the playoffs by Cleveland in 2015, Crowder ratcheted up his defensive pressure on LeBron James in Game 4, endearing him to the Celtics faithful. But his night ended early at the hands of a J.R. Smith blow to the face that came after a hard pick set by former Celtic Kendrick Perkins.
Who can forget his gutsy performances this past season, with the playoffs starting just hours after the tragic death of his younger sister?
Thomas forged ahead, delivering one memorable performance after another.
And shortly after her burial, Thomas -- playing despite having a tooth knocked out and several others needing to be fixed -- delivered a performance for the ages, scoring a playoff career-high 53 points in leading the Celtics to a Game 2 overtime win against the Washington Wizards.
Now they hope to bring that same level of toughness and grit to the Cavaliers by doing what they did in Boston -- proving their naysayers wrong.
Both recalled hearing a lot of talk when they arrived about how the Celtics were looking to “tank” games that season.
“We [were] like, ‘What’s that? Lose on purpose? That’s not going to happen,' ,” Crowder said. “So from that point on we clicked and we knew we were on the same page with basketball. And from that point, the rest is history.”
An underdog mindset is tough to manufacture when one of your teammates is LeBron James. But because of all the new pieces surrounding James, there's a sense the Cavs might have some early bumps in the road . . . such as Thomas’ hip injury, which is expected to keep him sidelined at the start of the season.
“I’ve been in situations before were things have been a little tough and we haven’t had the best players and we just kept fighting and worked with what we had,” Thomas said. “But, I mean, being put in this situation on the court is everything. To play with the best player in the world, play with a guy like Kevin Love, and J.R. Smith and Derrick Rose and to be coached by a guy like Tyronn Lue who’s been in this league for a long time, it’s like . . . It’s like a match made in heaven.
"It’s a scary thing if everything is able to click with the guys we have coming in and guys we have on this team. I’m excited and I can’t wait to get going.”
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