Posted Nov 18 2009 11:39AM
His job is to come off the bench and rescue the Hawks, and he's doing it well enough to gain early Sixth Man Award mention. But let's be honest. It goes both ways. The Hawks rescued Jamal Crawford, too.
They airlifted him from the Warriors last summer before he could get tangled up in that mess, which admittedly is less suffocating today with Stephen Jackson gone. But ... still. A segment of that locker room is unhappy, coach Don Nelson is in a comatose state of semi-retirement and too many players have clashing roles. On a dysfunctional level, they're the West Coast Knicks.
Crawford's journey to salvation is even sweeter today because he was with the Knicks two years ago, when they began to bail and dream of the free agent summer of 2010. What a ride: From the Knicks to the Warriors to the Hawks, who are off to their best start in years. Now you know why Crawford is the happiest player in basketball. He has regained sanity.
"You don't hear me complaining," he said. "This has worked out great. I'm glad I'm here."
Yes, for both Crawford and the Hawks, this has been a blessing. Atlanta got him from the Warriors for a plate of cheese grits and he's a major reason the Hawks, record-wise, are tops in the East. He's bringing scoring and energy and depth to a team that's bubbling. Crawford is just one more shooter to make the defense worry, one more option for a team with several. None of the Hawks are first-name stars, unless you're big on Joe (Johnson), and that's why they need multiple weapons. Crawford is glad to be one of them.
"He's giving us a lift, and we're a better team when he's on the floor," said coach Mike Woodson. "Jamal's been great."
Rick Sund, the Hawks' vice president, has tried to model his team after the 2004 Pistons, and some of the basic elements are there. Everybody plays a role and accepts a role. Josh Smith is more under control and does everything with an exclamation point (Rebound! Dunk! Swat!). Johnson is the core of the offense, shredding Brandon Roy late in the Hawks' overtime win Monday. Al Horford is still playing taller than he looks, while Mike Bibby is delaying a fade into the sunset.
Making it all work is Crawford. The Hawks didn't have an extra body with his scoring punch last spring, when injuries kept them from advancing in the playoffs. Plus, he can give Johnson a rest.
The Hawks must live with his swings (he's just a 40-percent career shooter) but you settle for that when he can bust loose for 30 points without warning. Crawford dropped 50 on the Bobcats last December, also had nine games of 30-plus points and 30 games of 20-plus last season, all while coming off the bench. He doesn't mind that because "coming off the bench" has always been overstated. If you're on the floor when it counts, then you're a starter.
In the Hawks' season opener, Crawford looked uncomfortable and passed up several shots. Johnson and Woodson pulled him aside and read him the riot act. With a smile.
"You be who you are," said Woodson.
"Shoot," said Johnson.
"That meant a lot," Crawford said, "when the team leader says that and especially the coach, because I needed to hear it from him more than anybody. I just didn't want to rub my teammates the wrong way by coming in here and shooting a lot."
Crawford later broke loose for 25 against Denver and 21 against New Orleans. Because he's a 'tweener guard, Crawford is even sharing some of the point guard load when Bibby needs a breather. And his fast start has offset an early struggle by Marvin Williams, who's been on the bench in fourth quarters.
In New York, Crawford was the Knicks' best player, which obviously made him marketable. Once the Knicks decided to clear cap space for a run at LeBron James, Crawford was swapped for Al Harrington, who came with a shorter contract. The next summer, the Warriors made a money deal when they got two expiring contracts (Speedy Claxton, Acie Law IV) from Atlanta in return for Crawford. As you might imagine, Crawford hasn't had any regrets about moving twice. Atlanta feels like Paris in springtime.
"I was in New York during the roughest time in franchise history, and some of the stuff that went on there, I don't miss," he said. "And I don't have to deal with any of the off-court stuff with the Warriors. Everything here is solid."
Especially the winning. Crawford has played nine years in the NBA and in six of them, his teams won 30 games or fewer. That's 597 games with no playoffs, the longest sad sack streak in basketball.
Figure that will be snapped come April.
"It can't follow me here, can it?" he asked.
Not quite. While the Hawks might be tempted to wear No. 4 on their jerseys, the way everybody has them fourth best in the East, the gap is closing. They've beaten Portland twice, won in Boston and spanked the Nuggets. They can beat anybody, anywhere.
"I feel rejuvenated," he said.
So do the Hawks.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here.
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