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Jamal Crawford and Hawks heading to Chicago

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Apr 30

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When I caught up with Jamal Crawford, he had just finished watching his buddy and former teammate, Zach Randolph, dominate the No. 1 seeded Spurs Friday and lead the Memphis Grizzlies to the improbable upset.

“We’ve been texting all series,” Crawford was saying. “It wasn’t too long ago me and him were with the Knicks and they were off to their best start and then we get traded the same day so they can go after LeBron and all those guys. I can understand that. It’s something you have to do. But you never know what will happen in the NBA.”

Few, perhaps, know that as well as Crawford, who was the Bulls’ highest of six draft picks in 2000, charged with being the foundation of the post-championship rebuilding. But like most kids, Crawford was sure he knew everything until it became clear he knew nothing.

“You come in, a lottery pick, and you think you can take it over in one leap and bound,” Crawford recalled with a laugh. “It’s funny how it works out. You think you can take on the world and can change everything and nothing changes. And then you have to take your lumps. I did from the moment I arrived. But it was a great experience and I’m thankful for my time with the Bulls. It helped me mature a lot.”

Crawford has gone on to be voted the league’s Sixth Man of the year, and after an uneven start this season following a failed contract negotiation (Crawford is a free agent), Crawford came on strong and was the dominant figure in the Hawks’ first round upset of the Orlando Magic.

After the Hawks’ Game 4 win when Crawford scored more than 20 off the bench for the fourth consecutive game, one of three players ever to do so, Magic coach Stan Van Gundy lamented, “We’ve tried a lot of guys on him so far and no one has been able to guard him yet. We’ve got to figure out a way to stop Jamal Crawford.”

Now, it will be the Bulls’ job. Crawford could become a starter with Kirk Hinrich out with a hamstring injury, but like his friend Randolph, though just under different circumstances, it is a coming of age of sorts.

The irony, of course, was with Hinrich back joining Crawford this season in Atlanta, Crawford said he always joked with Hinrich that Hinrich turned him into a shooting guard with the Bulls when Hinrich assumed the point guard role.

Randolph, meanwhile, came of age in Memphis, and now it’s perhaps Crawford’s time with the Hawks opening the Eastern Conference semifinals in the United Center Monday.

The Hawks are huge underdogs, especially with starting point guard Hinrich out. I’m not even sure the Hawks’ family members are picking them.

But it’s not like many were picking the Hawks against the Magic, who last year had set a record for playoff victory margin in a sweep of the Hawks. But led by Crawford, who averaged 20.5 points and shot 46 percent on threes, the Hawks won in six games.

It would seem to take more against a stronger Bulls team, though the Spurs seemed unbeatable at one point.

“We’ve been overlooked for the most part all season,” said Crawford. “Everyone was mentioning Boston and Miami and Chicago or Orlando. Never, ever Atlanta. With us, we feel like we just have to go out and play the game.

“No one is giving us a chance,” agreed Crawford. “We’ll try to shock the world.”

Similarly for Crawford, who though a prolific scorer, was being dismissed as a loser, a selfish player who wouldn’t stand up to the competition.

But the slender 6-5 guard has proven big at big times. He has scored at least 50 points in games with three different teams and broke Reggie Miller’s record for four point shots. There is no shot out of Crawford’s range, and his three point banker was a backbreaker in Game 4 against Orlando.

But it’s been a bumpy ride to the present, and even still as the Hawks declined to offer Crawford a contract extension despite averaging 18 points off the bench last season.

“I am uncertain about the future,” says Crawford. “But I can’t even think about it. You have to live in the moment and we’ve got something going. Who knows how long I’ll be here or how long this team will be together. I’ve learned things can change fast. So I’m not focusing on the future. People have been great to me here. I love the city, my teammates. It’s been a great fit. I did want to sign. I wanted to be loyal and not look at something else. Some guys want freedom, and I understand that. It just didn’t get worked out, so this summer we’ll see what happens.”

At one time Crawford thought he’d be a Bull for a long, long time.

“With me and Eddy, Tyson, Kirk and J. Will we had a lot of young players and felt we could have something,” recalled Crawford. “It just didn’t happen.”

Crawford averaged 17.3 per game his fourth season with the Bulls in 2003-04, and Bill Cartwright was coach. But Williams suffered a career ending injury in a motorcyle accident and New York was pushing for Crawford.

“There were a lot of bumps along the way,” says Crawford. “I didn’t understand as a young player that I had to wait my time. I wanted everything to go faster. We weren’t winning anything. I thought I should be on the court. I felt I was playing behind guys who were older and going nowhere.

“Then I was splitting time with Jay because Cartwright didn’t want us playing together,” recalled Crawford. “ He started to play us together at the end of the season and I thought we did better. It was just time to move on. I loved Chicago. I learned a lot there in my four years. But New York really wanted me a lot. I feel when I got there I was more mature.

“I’ll take the blame for what happened in Chicago,” says Crawford. “I was young, a 19-year-old who thought he could take on the world. It doesn’t work that way.”

Crawford said that fourth season with the Bulls, though, was a turning point. In playing regularly and producing he finally felt he could make a difference.

Crawford began to grow comfortable in the role of designated scorer with the Knicks. Throughout the turmoil of the Isiah Thomas and Larry Brown feuds, the law suits and Stephon Marbury’s troubles, Carwford was a voice of calm and reason. He still was the sensitive kid in need of a hug, and he tightened up his game under Brown. He still proudly recalls the day Brown told him he’d improved as much in one season as any player Brown had coached.

Crawford went on to average 20.6 and five assists for the Knicks in 2007-08 in another lost, dysfunctional season in New York.  A month into the next season after the hot start he and Randolph were traded.

It was on to Golden State where he had a 50-point game and management began selling him as a building block. But coach Don Nelson decided he couldn’t play with Monta Ellis and told Crawford to opt out of his contract, effectively give up millions because Nelson didn’t like him. He didn’t. Nelson benched him.

After the season averaging 19.7, he was traded to Atlanta, and Crawford knew he was at a crossroads of his career, and nine years in without ever appearing in a playoff game.

“I knew Atlanta had a starting five in place for four or five years, so I wasn’t going to start,” said Crawford. “I began going to the gym in pickup games and would purposely sit at the start and then go in to begin preparing myself for being a sixth man.

“I was tough,” said Crawford. “The reality hits you when you finally start coming off the bench. But if it was about winning and helping the team, it’s what I had to do. I doubt I could have done that early in my career. I still don’t view myself as a sixth man. But if I have to play the role, I consider it a luxury as we have six starters on the team.

“It is different,” says Crawford, still with that youthful twinkle even at 31. “The starters have the luxury of feeling out the game. You come off the bench and you have to impact the game right away. You might be down and playing catchup. But it’s been good for me.

“It’s going to be fun to come back to the United Center for a playoff game,” says Crawford. “It really hasn’t sunk yet. It probably won’t until I take the floor that first time and everyone is going crazy for the Bulls. It will always be a special place for me.”

– Meanwhile, around the NBA it’s the start of the second round Sunday, and I like the Bulls over Atlanta. I’ll get into that more for a Monday look at the series. I’ve changed watching Miami and think Boston will win now. I like the Thunder over the Grizzlies and the Lakers over the Mavericks, though the Lakers can’t get themselves to play hard and that has the look of a tough seven gamer with the Mavs getting past the mental barrier of the first round.

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