Every time Jamal Crawford heard the message from members of the Trail Blazers, the red-and-black uniform felt a little more comfortable. First, the words of support came from LaMarcus Aldridge, the star forward who spent much of last summer recruiting Crawford as a free agent. Then, interim general manager Chad Buchanan echoed the thoughts of his new franchise centerpiece, followed by team president Larry Miller.
But Crawford, the 31-year-old guard who strongly considered the Kings and Knicks before signing with the Blazers in December, didn't feel like the Portland jersey fit right until coach Nate McMillan chimed in.
"He pulled me to the side in Atlanta at shootaround, and said, 'Hey, just play,'" Crawford said. "He said, 'Stop thinking so much. Stop thinking and just play.'"
"It's always good to hear from [teammates and executives] ... but it was definitely good to hear from your coach since he's the one controlling the minutes."
The setting was nothing short of ironic, with McMillan finally telling Crawford to be himself in the same place where he had learned that lesson two seasons before en route to winning the Sixth Man of the Year award while with the Hawks. This was not a new development for Crawford. It's the life of a gunner on a new team, that transition period where the scorer worries more about how he'll be viewed by those around him for shooting than he does actually making -- or even taking -- the shots. In Crawford's case, that was just one of the many issues to resolve this time around.
There was the inauspicious beginning with McMillan, a defensive-minded coach who was justifiably wary of Crawford's ability on that end when he first arrived. There was (and is), the point guard experience, as Crawford has frequently been asked to back up Raymond Felton in the kind of role that doesn't come naturally to him. The comfort crisis came later.
"It's like I wasn't playing like me but was trying to just fit in," Crawford said. "But the reason they brought me here is for me to be me, because me being me helps the team. That's what they kind of needed, so it's been better as of late for sure. Coach told me to just go out there and play, and I think that's where the transformation is going. It was the exact same thing in Atlanta."
All in all, the fit has been fine so far. Crawford -- who arrived with the hope of bolstering the Blazers' backcourt that was without his good friend, Brandon Roy, after his knee problems forced him into early retirement in December -- is playing fewer minutes (24.7 per game) than he has since his second season in Chicago in 2001-02. But his scoring per 48 minutes is good for 18th in the league (26.8), and his 13.8 points per game is second on the team behind Aldridge (22.8).
But as was the case in Sacramento on Thursday night, when he hit just six of 17 shots overall and one of five three-pointers in a loss that dropped Portland to 13-10 overall and 3-9 on the road, Crawford has hardly been efficient. His 38.0 percent shooting is the second-lowest of his career, and his 32.3 percent from three-point range is his third-lowest.
It should come as no surprise considering the adjustment, as the change of position means Crawford finds himself hunting for very different shots than he used to see from the off-guard spot.
"On offense, I tell him to just relax," Wallace said. "He gets down on himself, and we try to tell him, 'We know what you can do. And just because you miss two in a row doesn't mean we're going to stop coming to you. We know that once you make that first one, that's all you need.'
"It's a work in progress. I think this is probably the first year where he's really been at that point guard position, and he's trying to guard [point guards] instead of [shooting guards]. It's totally different when you're trying to pressure and control the ball and control the tempo of the game."
The two-way effort, according to Wallace and McMillan, has been there on a consistent basis. That sort of play will always make McMillan happy, especially in light of the way their pairing began.
Crawford made it clear during the recruiting process that he was happy with his niche in the league, that he could play the part of scintillating scorer but wasn't about to become a defensive stopper. McMillan, though, has seen solid play from Crawford and praised Crawford for his defense.
"If you look at tape [against the Bobcats on Wednesday], Jamal was pretty good defensively," McMillan said. "I don't see any reason why he can't be a good defender. It's all about making the effort. And as I told Jamal before coming, nobody is looking at anyone to be a stopper. But the effort has to be there."
McMillan, whose coaching identity in Seattle (head coach 2000-05) and Portland (2005-present) was born out of his style during a 12-year playing career with the SuperSonics, had been through this debate before.
"I had Ray Allen and we talked about the same thing," McMillan said. "And he goes to Boston and he's full-court pressuring. So Jamal has good feet, he's long, he's athletic, he's quick. With all of that, you can become a pretty good defender, and he's done that. He's worked on it. It's not about you. It's about us, and what is important to give yourself a chance to win. And he's worked on it."
Unique challenges aside, Crawford has plenty to be pleased with. He's enjoying the winning, and it's nice being close to his native Seattle while also being just far enough away so as to avoid the hassles that come with playing in your hometown. He isn't alone when it comes to playing for a new contract, either. The Blazers could have as many as nine players become free agents next summer (chief among them Wallace, Raymond Felton, Nicolas Batum, Greg Oden and Marcus Camby).
Crawford's deal is for two years and $10.2 million combined, but the second season is a player option and he fully intends on retesting the market in the summer. Until then, he'll keep refining his role with this group.
"Everybody is two feet in; that's what's really cool about this team," Crawford said. "That's what makes this special. Even with the highs and lows, that part is consistent. It's not like a guy takes three or four shots in a row and guys are like, 'Ah, man.' There's none of that. That's really, really rare. Nobody says anything [when he shoots a lot]. They encourage me too. So it's totally different."