By Ian Thomsen
January 13, 2010

Jamal Crawford found himself near the lucky leprechaun in the Celtics' frontcourt. How does one dribble out a night like this? Crawford looked up at the fans climbing stairs to the exits as he began to dance around the ball -- behind his back and between his legs, again and again -- until the buzzer.

"I still can't believe it,'' said Crawford, whose 17 points off the bench helped drive the Hawks to a 102-96 comeback victory Monday against the depleted Celtics. "My second-to-last year in New York, we were trying to get 22 wins by the All-Star break -- and we have [more than that] that now. It's just a totally different position to be in.''

Crawford is the longest-serving player in the NBA without playoff experience, and in three months that is going to change. He has emerged in his 10th season as a Sixth Man Award candidate for the Hawks (24-13 through Tuesday), who not only hold a 3-0 record over the Celtics but also stand just 1½ games behind Southeast Division leader Orlando.

"They have Joe Johnson and now they have Crawford as well, so they have two closers,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "That makes it tough, especially when you get into a one-point game with them. It's very difficult to get stops against guys that don't need a play to score. They just need the ball and they can go iso.''

Since picking up Crawford in an offseason salary dump by Warriors coach Don Nelson (who had no intention to play him and thus accepted the expiring contracts of Acie Law and Speedy Claxton in the exchange), the Hawks have made a four-team race of the East behind a three-guard rotation that also includes three-time All-Star Johnson (who had 36 points against the Celtics) and starting point guard Mike Bibby, who offers playmaking stability and demands attention as a deep shooter. Down the stretch Monday, however, the Celtics were unable to match up with the Hawks' backcourt of the 6-foot-7 Johnson and 6-5 Crawford, who enhance their length with three-point shooting as well as point-guard versatility to score inside or create for athletic big men Josh Smith and Al Horford.

Last year, Atlanta's sixth man was Flip Murray, a more physical defender than Crawford. "But Jamal is more explosive,'' Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. Crawford's 45.6 percent shooting is his best in eight years, and his 16.9-point scoring average is No. 1 among sixth men on winning teams. The Hawks plan to campaign for the Sixth Man Award by nicknaming him The Difference.

"He's playing hungry because he has not been in the playoffs,'' Woodson said, "and there's nothing wrong with that.''

Crawford had made a career of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He went to Michigan after the Fab Five and was suspended twice during his single college season, for accepting money from a friend and for applying to enter the draft as a senior at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle after signing to play with the Wolverines. He was picked No. 8 in a 2000 draft-night deal that sent him to Chicago, where for four years he practically disappeared in the black hole of Michael Jordan's departure. The Bulls traded him in 2004 to New York, where he spent another four hopeless years deflecting questions about Stephon Marbury and Isiah Thomas, before being dealt to the Warriors in November 2008.

During those nine years, in which his teams never won more than 33 games, it became easy to dismiss Crawford as a talented but hollow 15.2-point-per-game scorer whose creative abilities had little or no impact. What kept him going was the support of terrific players -- Jordan, Thomas and Magic Johnson were all outspoken fans, along with fellow Seattleite Brandon Roy -- as well as his innate understanding that things could be much worse. Before he could enter high school in Seattle, his single mother sent him to live with his father for three years in Los Angeles, where Crawford found himself in the middle of the gang war with the Bloods after he accidentally wore the all-blue colors of the Crips. Crawford watched as a friend was shot in the head and killed. He was threatened and robbed, he stopped attending class and he transferred from school to school.

A naturally shy person, he might have receded and vanished. Instead, he emerged as one of the nation's top high school players after moving back to Seattle. Crawford is recognized today as one of the most charitable players in the NBA.

"I'd rather see somebody else be happy than me, honest I would,'' he said. "That means everything. That's the greatest gift you can have as a person is to see somebody else happy or to help somebody else, especially kids.''

A lot of people in the league are pulling for him now.

"This guy never complains about anything,'' said Hawks vice president Dominique Wilkins, who works under general manager Rick Sund. "I love him as a person, he's very polite and wants to get better. He wants to know what he's doing wrong or right on the floor every night. He comes and asks me questions every game. I guess that's the respect side of it for him, but he wants to win.''

Winning was the great mystery, and throughout the preseason, Crawford worried about ruining a good thing. He was wary of acting like a black hole until Woodson ordered him to score aggressively after Crawford went 1-for-3 in the Hawks' opening-night win over the Wizards.

"He is very unselfish,'' Hawks forward Joe Smith said. "In training camp, we almost had to force him to shoot the ball. He was trying to get everybody involved and passing up a lot of shots, and we had to tell him when he comes into the game, 'Do what you do and we'll feed off that.' ''

While Crawford bore some responsibility for the losses of his career, this year is proving that it wasn't all his fault, that he can contribute to a winning program. In turn, his arrival and success cast perspective on the Hawks' renaissance: To think that this long-sorry franchise is now a refuge for losing (but not lost) souls like him.

"It's different from what I'm used to,'' Crawford said. "When you're on losing teams, you don't talk quite as much, and I think a big part of it is communication. When you care about somebody off the court, you'll do anything for him on the court, and that's evident here.''

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