CRAWFORD BACK IN PACIFIC NORTHWEST

Wesley Matthews (left) and Jamal Crawford were teammates last season in Portland.

PORTLAND - There’s something about the Pacific Northwest for Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. The people, the water, the clean air, and Thursday a game-high 25 points against the Portland Trail Blazers, his former team.

“The people [in the Northwest] I think more than anything else stand out to me,” said Crawford, who is from Seattle, some 173 miles north of Portland on Interstate 5. “That’s where I grew up, so I’m very fond of it.”

Crawford became somewhat of a Seattle basketball legend in his final two years at Rainer Beach High, a school located near the southwest tip of Lake Washington not far from downtown. He led the team to a 1998 state championship and had his No. 23 retired in two seasons.

More than a dozen years later, Crawford, 32, played in the Pacific Northwest on a regular, in-season basis for the first time since he was an 18-year-old high school student, agreeing to a deal with the Trail Blazers last December, during the hasty free-agent period that followed the lockout.

“When people were like, ‘You’re going to Portland?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m right there in Seattle. It’s perfect for me. I’m close to home,’” Crawford said. “Even with how things went last year, it’s still always cool coming here because my whole career even when I wasn’t here, this is where my family would come watch me play along with Seattle and Vancouver.

“It always feels good to come back.”

On Thursday he was back for the first time with the Clippers and it likely felt even better. He led all scorers in the Clippers’ 103-90 victory, including 11 of 13 points during a key stretch in the late third quarter and early fourth that helped hold off a Portland rally that trimmed a 25-point Clipper lead to as low as four.

“I just wanted to be more aggressive,” Crawford said of his second-half approach. “When I’m over there (on the bench), I’m actually scouting the game to see how they’re playing different things, see what will work, see what won’t work and I just try to put it to use when I come in. I know that my job off the bench is to make plays, score the basketball and make plays for my teammates.”

Crawford had about 15 friends and family in attendance at the Rose Garden, but the partisan crowd greeted their one-time sixth man with a chorus of boos when he checked in at the 1:34 mark of the first quarter. 

The reaction was something Crawford expected. “I don’t think it’s personal,” he said. “I just think everybody who’s associated with what happened last year is going to get booed. I don’t have any hard feelings. I don’t have any regrets.”

During Crawford’s one season in the Rose City, the Trail Blazers opened with a 7-2 record before entering a near season-long tailspin. He ultimately saw head coach Nate McMillan get fired and veterans Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace traded away. Crawford was mentioned in trade speculation as well, but played out the remainder of the season before opting out of his contract in June. He signed with the Clippers a few weeks later.

“I think the lockout season was tough,” Crawford said. “I’ve never been in a lockout season, but more than that not really being comfortable with what I was doing. I think that and obviously, I didn’t shoot well. I’m the only one shooting the shots, so I’m not going to put that on anybody else. I think the combination of those things made it just a bad year.”

In 60 games with Portland, he scored 14.0 points per game, his lowest season average since 2002 when he was a 22-year-old, third-year player on the Bulls, and shot 38.4% from the field. He alternated between point guard and shooting guard, started six games and came off the bench for 54, and despite playing so close to home, never seemed comfortable.

Still, Crawford made an impact with his former teammates. Guard Wesley Matthews, for example, called him a “good guy, on and off the court,” adding, “One thing I learned from him is that you’re more open than you think.”

Now that Crawford is in Los Angeles he’s seemingly always open. He is off to the best six-game start off the bench in the league, scoring in prolonged flurries and ranking among the top 10 in the NBA in points per game (21.8). More importantly, he says he is finally feeling at home.

“I haven’t felt like this since I was in New York mentally. I feel like I’ve found a home,” said Crawford, who played 299 games with the Knicks over five seasons. “And for me the last few years I basically played on one-year contracts and that’s always tough. You want to put your best foot forward, but it’s a tough situation to be in. I’ve felt like I’ve found a home.”