OKLAHOMA CITY — Emotions were on display Monday at Vivint Arena during Game 5 of the Utah Jazz versus Oklahoma City Thunder playoff series.
So much so, that Thunder star Russell Westbrook picked up his second foul late in the first quarter after trying to bully Jazz guard Ricky Rubio with over-aggressive defense.
Immediately after the play, the first person to jump in the face of Westbrook in defense of Rubio was Jazz forward Jae Crowder.
The enforcer role isn’t a front for No. 99. Standing up for teammates is simply what he does.
“It’s what I’m about,” Crowder said. “I feel like if I’m spending this much time away from my family, this is my family and the way I protect my family is to stick up for them no matter what and it shows on the court.”
Seven technical fouls were assessed in Game 5 with one leading to an ejection. Guess who got tossed? Crowder, in case you were wondering.
Again, Crowder and Westbrook’s tempers led to a skirmish, where he inadvertently elbowed Steven Adams in the face after taking a hard foul from Westbrook with under six minutes remaining in regulation. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound sixth man doesn’t back down from anyone and is always the first to protect his guys in the heat of the battle.
Ever since he arrived at the Jazz practice facility on Feb. 9 after being acquired from the Cleveland Cavaliers before the trade deadline, his teammates have respected that edge he brings to the court.
“He’s done that from day one,” Ingles described. “He didn’t know any of us the day he walked in and early on in those first few games he was the first one into anything that happened and I hope we’re all here for a very long time.”
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Taming that inner beast is one of Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s many challenges to make sure that energy gets used in a productive way for the squad. Crowder is a great guy off the court, he’s a family man and he’s personable, but you don’t want to cross that line to end up on the other side.
A similar incident happened on Friday, March 2 in the regular season, where the Jazz beat the Minnesota Timberwolves at home 116-108. But three players were ejected and five technical fouls were called including a Flagrant 2 foul.
Once again, Timberwolves guard Jeff Teague charged at Rubio out of frustration before Crowder rushed to his defense and even argued with coach Tom Thibodeau before being ejected. Afterward, Crowder went back at his former Marquette teammate Jimmy Butler of the Timberwolves via Twitter, who was injured at the time.
“I DONT TWITTER BEEF ILL LEAVE THAT TO U.. BUT U GOT MY PHONE NUMBER AND KNOW MY HOME ADDRESS..!! THE REST CAN BE HISTORY,” Crowder tweeted at Butler.
Crowder isn’t often the one starting these kerfuffles, but he certainly isn’t shying away from them either.
“It’s not a front, it’s just what I’m about,” Crowder said. “Just on the court, I feel like these guys are my family and I’m with them more time than I’m with my family honestly and when you’re with a group of guys like that and you’re having fun, it’s more natural. It just happens.”
Ingles remembers one specific instance where he was on the opposite end of one of Crowder’s mood swings during his Boston Celtics tenure.
“He tried to fight me,” Ingles recalled, laughing.
Crowder was visibly displeased with Celtics fans for cheering on former Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward during a home game on Jan. 3, 2017, so he went out and dropped 21 points versus Utah while going 5 for 6 from beyond the arc. He took the gesture as a sign of disrespect, as Boston fans were trying to win Hayward over through free agency, so it sparked a fire for Crowder tie a then career-high for 3-pointers in a game to help Boston beat Utah 115-104.
“He got mad at me,” Ingles remembered. “They cheered for Gordon and he got mad at me in that game. I don’t know why he got mad at me; he should’ve got mad at Gordon.
“Gordon wouldn’t talk back; I knew he would,” Crowder responded, smirking.
That tenaciousness on the hardwood as the son of former Jazzman, Corey Crowder, is one of the reasons why he’s becoming so beloved in Salt Lake City in his first season.
Crowder doesn’t try to be Deebo by bullying opponents, but he’s also no wimp.
So before anyone tries to step to Rubio or anyone on the Jazz team for that matter, there’s one guy on the roster that has their back. Trying him isn’t the best idea.
“Obviously what Jae brings is a lot of different things but that is something that is probably right up there with what we love about him,” Ingles said.