By Ben Golliver
PORTLAND, Ore. -- One year ago, Jamal Crawford dazzled a packed house at the University of Portland, executing killer crossovers and shooting rainbow threes in a charity game that helped pass the time during the lockout. He dropped hints before and after the game that he might team up with his buddy LaMarcus Aldridge and sign with the Trail Blazers in free agency. Crawford was back here on Thursday, in the Rose Garden this time, being booed repeatedly by fans who blame him, in part, for the Blazers' lost 2011-12 season.
"I don't care if you score 90 points," one man shouted from the 200 level. "We don't want you back."
If Crawford didn't hear that particular line, he also didn't miss the boos when he checked in for the Clippers and then again as he took over the game in the fourth quarter. A Seattle native who had been greeted by some as a possible savior after Brandon Roy's release via the amnesty clause and unofficial retirement because of knee injuries, Crawford was singled out, along with point guard Raymond Felton, in reports as a member of a midseason locker-room "mutiny" against coach Nate McMillan.
"I think anybody that was a part of last year deserved to get booed," Crawford told SI.com. "It was a weird situation because we started out No. 1 in the West the first two weeks of the season. Then we hit some bumps in the road, kind of went downhill. I was a part of that. I'll take that [booing] on the chin and I won't look bad at the Portland fans. I'm a Northwest guy. ... No hard feelings, no regrets."
There was a bit of a scorned-lover vibe to some of the heckles, a personal frustration that has endured since the Blazers crashed from a 7-2 start to a 28-38 finish, firing McMillan and dealing veterans Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace at the trade deadline to begin an overhaul in earnest. The 2012-13 Blazers, younger and less proven, are in for a long season, even if their march proceeds without the weight of the heavy expectations that Crawford and company bore last year. The grass is greener on a lot of lawns around the league, and Crawford's Clippers (4-2) are sitting atop the Pacific Division after defeating the Blazers 103-90 on Thursday night. In Portland, Crawford is not only an ex but he's also at least at this moment, an ex who upgraded and is perfectly happy.
"I haven't felt this comfortable since high school," Crawford, who finished with a game-high 25 points, said of his new team. "I feel like I have a home. I want to be here as long as they want me here."
An extraordinarily strong start gives Crawford every reason to be content. He's averaging a team-leading 21.8 points and shooting 52.5 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from three-point range. It's a stunning reversal of fortune from last season, when he averaged 14.0 points, shot 38.4 percent overall and a career-low 30.8 percent from deep. The "comfort" factor has been key. In Portland, Crawford and McMillan, known as a disciplinarian who favored a low-turnover, low-pace approach, never totally saw eye-to-eye when it came to shot selection and acceptable defensive effort. To complicate matters, Crawford briefly had his role adjusted because of Felton's struggles. A shoot-first 2-guard was asked to step in and play point guard -- a doomed experiment from the start.
In Los Angeles, coach Vinny Del Negro isn't hiding his hands-off approach: Crawford has the green light to gun, gun, gun.
"He can score quickly," Del Negro told SI.com. "We're just trying to open up the court for him as best we can with the second group. Jamal knows how to score. He's difficult to guard off the dribble. We need his production. He's been giving us a lot of production from scoring."
The numbers are almost comical. In 173 minutes, Crawford has attempted 80 shots and registered just six assists. No one is complaining; on the contrary, the Clippers, who are dealing with some injuries, can't get enough.
"Forget the Sixth Man Award; he's an All-Star," Chris Paul said. "Jamal Crawford is an All-Star if you ask me. ... Right now, Jamal is our only consistent 20-point scorer. I love it -- as long as we win, I couldn't care less."
Los Angeles is without Chauncey Billups, still recuperating from an Achilles injury, and Grant Hill, out with a knee injury. Paul is coming off thumb surgery last summer, and Blake Griffin's right elbow is bothering him. Lamar Odom, a potential scoring option on paper, looks out of shape and has failed to make an impact. That's where Crawford, and center DeAndre Jordan, who had at least 20 points for the second game in a row on Thursday, come in to fill the scoring gap.
"He's always been a great one-on-one player," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "He's been on a little roll."
Crawford's slick ball-handling has always gotten a lot of notice, especially on YouTube, where a recent highlight of him dribbling the ball between Nando de Colo's legs, causing the Spurs' guard to fall over backward, spread quickly. Crawford laughed when that nutmegging was brought up on Thursday, but it wasn't an uneasy laugh. In Lob City, that type of thing goes, as long as the wins continue. Jordan and others reacted to the play with laughter rather than the raised eyebrows that might have been directed at Crawford had he tried something similar on a McMillan team. The Clippers, it seems, have made the decision to let Crawford be Crawford and hope for the best.
On Thursday, he was key, especially in the second half, when Blazers forward Nicolas Batum began pressuring Paul, hounding him out to midcourt and working to deny him before the catch. That extra energy helped Portland to an 18-4 third-quarter run and nearly eliminated the Clippers' 25-point lead.
"Batum is an outstanding defender, but if you try to put him on me, I get the ball out of my hands and give it to Jamal," Paul said. "You've got to make a choice. You want the ball out of my hands, it's going to his hands, which is maybe even more deadly."
It took some time, but the Clippers eventually adjusted to the pressure, turning over offense-initiation duties to Crawford.
"I thought we got a little stagnant, but with [Eric] Bledsoe and Jamal, we have two other guys who can handle the ball, take some pressure off of [Paul]," Del Negro said. "We started spreading the ball out a little bit. ... We did get a little stagnant in the third, but I like the way we bounced back in the fourth."
Crawford said the in-game strategy was all part of the franchise's plan dating to the summer, when the Clippers targeted him after he elected to opt out of the final year of a two-year deal with the Blazers to become a free agent. Los Angeles, which was swept out of the Western Conference semifinals by San Antonio, was looking for a backcourt playmaker to complement Paul, who had drawn more defensive attention than he could manage by himself in the playoffs.
"That's what they told me in free agency," Crawford said. "I watched some of the games when they lost to the Spurs. Chauncey was out. [San Antonio said], 'We're going to take Chris out and [force] guys to have to make plays. [The Clippers] didn't just want a guy who could shoot. They wanted somebody who could make plays. I felt like I could fit the bill."
The final damage: Crawford scored nine fourth-quarter points to ice what was, in the end, a fairly easy victory. With each basket thwarting the Blazers' comeback bid, the Rose Garden boo-birds came back. Crawford said the negative noise, which was loud enough to be heard on the national-television broadcast, didn't serve as motivation. He was more interested in mending fences than carrying a grudge.
"We were all in it together," Crawford told SI.com. "It wasn't just me or whoever else that they want to boo when they come here. We were all in it together. ... I don't have any regrets or hard feelings toward [the fans]. They are doing what they are supposed to do for the team. Look forward, no point in looking back, you can't change the past."
And, anyway, a season removed from sparking excitement by signing with the Blazers and catalyzing a hot start in Portland, history is repeating itself with the Clippers. The goals in Los Angeles, for Crawford and everyone else, are even loftier: making a push toward title contention. "I think we stack up with the better teams in the West," he said. "It's still early, but we feel like the sky is the limit."