FOURTH QUARTER IS JAMAL CRAWFORD’S TIME

Jamal Crawford has made an impression with his ability to score points in crunch time this season, but for the 12-year veteran guard it’s something that just comes naturally.

Jamal Crawford drives to the basket versus Utah.
Jamal Crawford drives to the basket vs. the Jazz on October 17th at STAPLES Center.

Jamal Crawford says his fourth-quarter success just comes naturally.

You could see it when he somewhat casually glanced at the shot clock in the final minute of Wednesday night’s preseason game against the Jazz, rocking the ball back and forth as he approached DeMarre Carroll in the middle of the floor. The game was tied at that point; the operative word being “was.”

Crawford, much as he’s done throughout his 12-year career, blew past Carroll with a left-hand hesitation dribble, got to the rim and finished with a right-handed layup, drawing a foul on Carroll in the process.

The shot gave the Clippers a 94-92 lead. Preseason or not, it was obvious Crawford is going to fit in in Los Angeles just fine.

“He’s an explosive scorer, you could see that last night,” Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said after practice Thursday. “He’s a difficult cover. He’s a guy who’s closed games out before [and is] another guy who can take guys off the dribble and make plays.”

Crawford’s penchant for closing games is well-documented. He did the same thing for the Clippers against Denver three games ago, scoring eight straight fourth-quarter points and leads the team in scoring in the preseason with 17.0 points per game on 47% shooting.

In his career, he’s nailed a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer while with Atlanta, had several huge shots with the Knicks before that, and seemingly always has the ball in his hands when time is ticking away. In 2011-12, his only season with the Trail Blazers, Crawford was 11-for-23 on 2-point shots in the final three minutes of games when his team was within five points.

Inserting him into a crunch-time lineup that could ultimately feature Chris Paul, who was statistically among the league’s best closers last season, and Chauncey Billups, gives the Clippers quite a collection of options.

“You can’t help off anyone,” Crawford said. “Whether it’s [Paul] or Chauncey or Matt [Barnes] or whoever is out there. It makes us that much more dangerous [at the end of games].”

Crawford said he watched the Clippers series against the Spurs in the Western Conference Semi-Finals last May and noticed how San Antonio’s defense would load up on Paul. “They made things difficult for him, especially with Chauncey out,” Crawford said.

Defenses may have to rethink that strategy now.

“With our ability, with Blake [Griffin] and [DeAndre Jordan], to score inside and the attention Chris draws, having a guy out there who’s going to space the court and give those guys gaps for penetration is important,” Del Negro said. “We’ll continue to build [Crawford] in in the fourth quarter, you know last night we went to him, which we’ll do sometimes. Not only because he’s a capable player to make shots, but to make plays.”

As the preseason continues, Del Negro has said he will begin fine-tuning the team’s lineup and rotations. Part of that will include dividing minutes among the Clippers’ talented bench. Crawford will likely serve as the primary scorer in a group that includes Barnes, Eric Bledose, Lamar Odom and Grant Hill.

Starting small forward Caron Butler thinks that unit could be one of the Clippers’ biggest strengths. “It’s one of those things where you don’t have any drop offs. If you start off the game like you’re supposed to and then you come in with the second unit you’re not missing a beat.”

For Crawford, the 2010 NBA Sixth Man of the Year, coming off the bench or starting hardly matters, but when the clock is winding down and he’s on the floor he’ll do what comes naturally: make plays.