LOS ANGELES – Jamal Crawford wanted to be honest with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Although his agent wanted him to take his time, play the field and not make any hasty commitments as a free agent, Crawford knew exactly where he wanted to be, and the Clippers knew exactly where he should be.
“When I came here, I don’t know if I should say this or not, but they told me I was their first option at lunch,” Crawford said. “And I told them at the same lunch that they were my first option. My agent didn’t want me to say that but I was just being honest and we made it happen.”
Because they made it happen in the form of a four-year, $25 million deal in July, Crawford has made it happen for the Clippers in the form of his team-leading 20.3 points per game.
On a team headlined by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, it is Crawford who has scored a team-high 142 points off the bench. It is the highest bench scoring total in the NBA this season, and the most points off the bench in the first seven games of a season since 2007-08, when Jason Terry had 156.
Crawford, 32, said he is having more fun this season than he has had playing basketball since he was in high school, and it shows.
“I’m just comfortable,” Crawford said. “I’ve never felt this comfortable. Knowing I worked at my game and knowing my teammates and coaches have confidence in me, we feel like we can do anything, honestly. I feel like out there, there’s nothing that can’t be done when you have that confidence from your teammates and your coaching staff. It makes you go enjoy it and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Many thought the Clippers would go after Ray Allen in the offseason (and they did, fairly aggressively recruiting him over the phone) but they switched gears after they met with Crawford. In fact, the day before Allen was scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles to meet with Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro and vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks, the Clippers canceled the visit. They had already found their guy.
“We talked to Ray. I played with Ray and know Ray well,” Del Negro said. “He’s a great player and a first-ballot Hall of Fame guy but we love having Jamal. We’re happy he’s with us.”
Del Negro and Sacks weren’t the only members of the who came after Crawford hard before and after his visit. He got phone calls from Paul, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chauncey Billups. They all wanted to let him know how much he was wanted and really needed for the Clippers to take the next step in their development as a championship contender.
“They told me how I fit in and I saw where their team was and where they could possibly go and I just wanted to be a part of it,” Crawford said. “It made perfect sense.”
Not even the Clippers, however, could have expected Crawford to play as well as he has. Crawford is the only primary bench player leading his team in scoring this season, and his scoring average is the third-highest among players who switched teams during the offseason, behind James Harden and O.J. Mayo, but ahead of Dwight Howard and Kevin Martin.
Crawford has made his biggest mark in helping the Clippers take and extend leads when he gets on the court. In the past three games against the San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Atlanta Hawks, Crawford has gone into a tight game and helped push the Clippers to leads of 20 or more points each time. In fact, the Clippers have outscored their opponents by 63 points when Crawford has been on the court. That is the fifth-highest plus-minus among all players in the NBA this season.
“I think there’s a moment of truth in every game, honestly,” Crawford said. “There’s a point in the game where it can go either way and the last three games it has gone our way. We clamped down. It always starts with the defense. We were able to get steals and get easy baskets and that picks everyone’s energy up and gets us going.”
Crawford hasn’t just helped the Clippers gain leads; he has helped close games as well. He leads the league in fourth-quarter scoring, averaging an NBA-high 9.3 points. Crawford also has been efficient from the field, shooting a career-high 50 percent. Entering this season, he’s never shot higher than 47.6 percent from the field for a single season.
Looking at the players on the court after practice Tuesday, Crawford smiles when he is asked why he has been so successful this season.
"Now you can't just key in on me," Crawford said. "You have the best point guard in the world right there and another superstar in Blake, DeAndre, who hopefully gets Most Improved [Player of the Year award]. I can go down the list of our team. I usually see a lot of double teams or traps, or whatever but they can't do that because there are other guys to worry about. I'm the fifth, sixth option. Whatever, I don't care. I just go out there and have fun."
The way Crawford has been playing this season, chances are he won’t be under the radar for long.
“Shhhh,” he said. “Don't tell nobody.”