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Former Jazzman Jae Crowder and ex-Ute Kyle Kuzma give these NBA Finals some local flavor

When Jae Crowder addressed the Utah media following the Jazz’s first-round postseason ouster in April 2019, he spoke of being eager to run it back, even offering to extol the virtues of the state and the organization to prospective free agents.

He couldn’t have known in that moment that he’d be starting the next season with the presumedly lottery-bound Memphis Grizzlies. And he surely couldn’t have foreseen that, after a second trade in a span of just a few months, he’d be ending it with the Miami Heat, in the NBA Finals, playing for a championship against the star-studded Lakers.

During the Heat’s pre-Finals media appearances on Tuesday morning, Crowder made it clear he’s not out to prove anything to the Jazz (who traded him), or the Grizzlies (who traded him), or any of the other franchises who have traded him during his career — he’s just looking to take advantage of an opportunity to win it all.

“I’m motivated by winning. I don’t care where I play. Obviously, I take pride in the group that I’m playing with. I obviously give them my all. But here, I’m trying to be special and trying to be special with a special group of players,” Crowder said. “… Winning conquers all. Winning conquers everything. That’s my main motivation as I tie my shoes up as a basketball player, just a shot to win the game no matter the cost.”

Turns out, though, that the hard-nosed forward represents just half of the Beehive State’s on-court tie-ins to these Finals, as former University of Utah star Kyle Kuzma will be coming off the bench for the Lakers.

Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma (0) goes up for a basket during the second half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game against the Houston Rockets Sunday, Sept. 6, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Los Angeles forward, who has experienced myriad ups and downs in his brief three-year career, reflected on the rollercoaster nature of having gone from growing up in Flint, Mich., to starring for the Utes, to becoming an unexpected rookie sensation for the Lakers, to surviving a near-complete roster purge, to becoming a key reserve for a storied and decorated franchise looking to claim its first title in a decade.

“The journey that I’ve taken to get to this point has been pretty crazy, and it’s just a surreal feeling to say that I’m in the NBA Finals with the opportunity to win the NBA championship,” Kuzma said. “So, man, just incredibly thankful. Obviously, when you come to the league you want to win, have success, and sometimes it never comes. You see so many guys that have never even been to the conference finals. So putting that in perspective, having an opportunity to be in the NBA Finals in my third year, it’s an honor.”

Asked if appearing in a couple of win-or-go-home NCAA Tournaments with the Utes had prepared him at all for the physical crucible of the NBA playoffs, Kuzma replied, “Not whatsoever,” noting that the variance in style of play and the skill level involved pretty much made college and NBA hoops “two different games, two different sports.”

Still, he likes his team’s chances, noting that the Lakers have been able to overcome the mental fatigue of being stuck in the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., for more than 80 days now because of their single-mindedness about their purpose there.

“We came here with one goal: to win the championship,” Kuzma said. “Obviously it’s tough days here, but we got each other here and we’re a family. We’re all brothers. We all talk to each other every day, hang out with each other, and make this experience fun. This is a great opportunity that we have on our hands.”

Crowder, likewise, is looking to capitalize on a rare opportunity.

He noted that “Definitely, it’s been a learning curve for me,” over the past year of basketball, navigating one role with the Jazz to a completely different one with the Grizz, to yet another one with the Heat.

As a starter for Miami, he said his mission for the upcoming best-of-seven series is pretty straightforward: “I play confident, I play hard, and I feed confidence into my teammates.”

However, if, as a bonus, he could go back to hitting pretty much every open 3 like he did in the first two rounds against the Pacers and Bucks, respectively, as opposed to making one of every four tries like he did vs. the Celtics, he would certainly take it.

Three separate questions Tuesday about what happened to his long-ball acumen were more than enough, thank you.

“I didn’t hear any media or anyone talking about my shooting when I was making shots,” he said with a smile and a laugh.” It’s funny y’all want to talk about it now.”

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