The NBA arrival of a 10-year veteran
It took Jamal Crawford a decade, but he's finally critical to his team's success.
MILWAUKEE -- Jamal Crawford told me something once.
He said: "This is my year. There comes a point where no matter what the reason is -- coaches, me, whatever -- [if you are not producing] after three or four years in the league, you are about to be shopped around, start traveling, moving to different teams, about to be labeled a role player. So that's why right now I gotta do this."
That was in 2004, just before he started the moving, his time in Chicago winding down before the bids in New York and the Bay (Golden State) that almost turned his career into collateral damage. And it was long before now, when his Atlanta Hawks are facing elimination in a first-round playoff series, down to Milwaukee three games to two, and all eyes are on him to save them.
His Hawks? Yes. Joe Johnson is the leader of this team, but Crawford, the recently crowned NBA Sixth Man of The Year, is the player the Hawks brought to Atlanta specifically to get them over this hump, to get them into the Eastern Conference finals and, ultimately, The Finals.
His 4-for-18, 11-point night in Wednesday's Game 5 loss at home, then, seriously ratcheted up the pressure on Crawford to come through in Vinnie Johnson fashion in Game 6 on Friday night in Milwaukee and keep Atlanta playing into May. It's the type of pressure, as Floyd Mayweather likes to say, that separates those who are talented from those who are God-gifted.
So Crawford tells me something else when I ask him whether he feels it, feels the responsibility to come up big in the most important game of his career and save the season.
Before he boards the team plane out of Atlanta on Thursday, he says, "I have to. That's one of my roles on this team, to make big plays, whether for myself or someone else."
Throughout Atlanta this season -- throughout the NBA, for that matter -- Crawford's name became synonymous with the opposite of what he was once labeled: a wasted talent. By the time the playoffs began, he was hailed as the possible savior of an Atlanta squad that has been getting closer and closer to basketball's holy grail but always seemed one player short. One lifelong ATL resident, a fan with his finger on the pulse of the town and the team, said this about him before the Milwaukee series started: "He's about to ascend past Josh [Smith] into that Dominique [Wilkins] territory if he keeps it up. Right now, Jamal Crawford's like the golden child."
Golden child? Savior? Jamal Crawford? The kid who did 10 years of hard labor in the league before he took the floor for his first playoff game last week? The kid whose life in the NBA had never been attached to winning?
Yeah. That kid.
What Might Have Been
For an all- too-brief time toward the end of the 2002-03 season, Jamal Crawford was teamed in the backcourt with Jay Williams, now an ESPN analyst. Williams remembers how good that pairing could have been, given the opportunity to develop. Story
Last offseason, the Atlanta brain trust of Michael Gearon Jr. (principal owner) and Rick Sund (GM) did some deep-concentration thinking about what they needed to get past teams such as Cleveland and Orlando in a seven-game series. Gearon and Sund knew that depending on Johnson to carry the offensive load, when LeBron can drop 40 on them and the Magic can put five 20-point scorers on the court at a time, wasn't going to be enough.
They knew Johnson didn't need a sidekick. He needed straight-up help.
And that help came in the form of Crawford, a 6-foot-5, barely 200-pound package who was once thought to be a basketball prodigy and the soul of the new basketball revolution coming out of Seattle.
For 82 games this season, he came through. He surpassed everyone's expectations, except maybe his own. (And mine. I said publicly that the Hawks would be in the NBA Finals this year because of Crawford.) But the playoffs so far have not been especially kind to him -- his scoring average has dropped seven points, and his shots per game and shooting percentage are down, as well -- but this is, after all, his first postseason. It's a different game in April than in November.
"I'm like a rookie all over again," he says. "Coach [Mike Woodson] says I'm thinking too much and not taking the same shots I was taking all year."
"Do you think he's right about that?" I ask.
At a practice session between Games 3 and 4 in Milwaukee, Crawford walks onto the court blowing into his fists as if it's freezing. But he's full of heat, and the temperature comes from a steady 18 points per game in the regular season. Now that he finally knows what it's like to play in the NBA's second season, the Hawks need him to get even warmer than that. At least for two more games.
This is a place no one ever expected him to be, at least no one who was watching him when he came into the league as a Chicago Bulls first-round draft choice in 2000.
What many of them expected him to be was the next in a line of players the basketball world had heard about but whose legend stayed stuck in the Seattle area, on the AAU circuit. His talent, even after a year at Michigan, was Big Daddy Kane raw. Too raw for the NBA's structured offenses, too "fly" to excel in a system.
Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Aaron Brooks, Terrence Williams, Jason Terry, Rodney Stuckey, Marvin Williams, Martell Webster. Even among that star-studded Seattle-area crew, Crawford's basketball talent was supreme. But it wasn't supposed to be enough. His name was going to be the answer to the question asked of those players from the Northwest who had succeeded in the league: Who's the best player ever from Seattle that never made it out?
And now, on Friday night, he has to live up to this new, elite place, a place he has put himself in this year by playing the best basketball of his career.
He's determined to prove he's ready for this moment. Been waiting for it.
"The difference between now and before," he says, speaking about those comments from 2004, "is that there's more stability now. This is the most stability I've had since I've been in the league, and I think that's why I've been able to play my best basketball."
And then he adds, "[And] I've grown up. I came in the game at 19. Since then, I've seen a lot. I've matured."
The maturity is evident in everything he does: from shot selection to a commitment on defense to shooting percentage to understanding and executing his role on this Hawks squad. Of all the significant stats that made this 10-years-in-the-making coming out-party one to remember, there's also this: He led the NBA in scoring among players who didn't start a game this season.
Now he's been given the responsibility (or will it be a curse?) of being the piece that's been missing for an NBA franchise still looking for its first championship ring.
"It's a long way to come from 'He's a talented dude but he's not winning' to 'He helped a team have the best record they've had in the last 15 years of the franchise,'" Crawford says of his life's saga. "I think I've shook the tag of just being a talented guy that never won."
When I ask him whether he believes that in life -- in his life, specifically -- everything happens for a reason, his response is well, it's so "who he's become."
"Everything, man," he says. "That's why I don't take anything for granted, and I'm not mad about anything that's happened to me that got me to this point."
With his back up against the wall, "this point" is Jamal Crawford's point of no return.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.