He seemed jittery. He wasn’t playing with his usual abandon. He looked like his own worst enemy when he went up for a jumper, his form all out of sorts instead of nice and smooth.
“I’ve been through slumps before, and this didn’t feel like a slump,” Crawford said Saturday, having put up a few last shots at the end of the Atlanta Hawks’ practice. “I felt like I was blocking my own shots, throwing myself off by putting too much pressure on myself instead of just having fun.
“At the end of the day, it’s still basketball. I’ve done this most of my life. I enjoy doing it. I just had to go back to doing that.”
Crawford can be excused for his nervousness. He waited 10 years for this moment, finally making the playoffs after being traded to the Hawks last summer. He struggled through the first five games, hitting less than a third of his shots and making just 4 of 18 from the field in Atlanta’s shocking Game 5 loss to the underdog Milwaukee Bucks.
But the series—heck, the entire season—on the line, Crawford finally stepped up and played like he had during the regular season. The NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year led the Hawks with 24 points on 8-of-17 shooting, while chipping in with five rebounds, two assists and a steal.
Atlanta pulled out an 83-69 road victory that sent the series back south for a decisive Game 7 on Sunday.
The Hawks will be counting on a similar performance out of Crawford.
“He’s been tough minded, man,” said teammate Joe Johnson(notes), the Hawks’ biggest star. “To come out the way he played last night, he shows he’s not scared of the big moment. He made a lot of big shots, a lot of big plays. He even stuck his nose in there a lot of times and came with some big rebounds. That’s what we need out of him, especially off that bench. He’s been the guy. I thought he picked us up last night and got us over that hump.”
The third-seeded Hawks were in a much better mood Saturday, having avoided an epic upset in a series they were expected to dominate with the Bucks missing two of their best players, Andrew Bogut(notes) and Michael Redd(notes).
Of course, the work isn’t done. For the third year in a row, Atlanta has been extended to seven games in the opening round.
“I don’t know what it is,” Johnson said, shaking his head and managing a weak smile. “I guess we just like going seven games.”
The Hawks know they’ll be facing many of the criticisms—no heart, a lack of teamwork, too much bickering—if they don’t take advantage of this second chance on their home court. The memory of blowing a nine-point lead in the final four minutes of Game 5 is still there, but no one will care if they finish off the Bucks on Sunday.
“This lets me know we can really play and buckle down when we need to,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to do that every night, regardless of the situation. That win last night means nothing if we don’t validate it on our home court. I think we’ll come out with that intensity, that defensive fire we had last night in the third quarter. I think we’ll sustain it for 48 minutes.”
The Bucks know they let their best shot at an upset get away. Now, they’re heading back to Atlanta, trying for a second straight road win over a team that had won 14 straight on its home court until Milwaukee’s stunning 14-0 run in the closing minutes Wednesday night.
“The fact that we came in and had a chance to close this team out at home, that says something,” Bucks guard Jerry Stackhouse(notes) said. “But the fact that we didn’t, that says something. That lets you know that there’s still some room for growth and there’s some inexperience in those situations.
“The only way you gain experience is by being in those situations and playing. I think that’s where this organization is right now.”
Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles conceded that his team appeared overwhelmed by the chance to actually win the series in its first playoff appearance since 2006. They led 34-31 after an ugly first half, then missed 11 straight shots during Atlanta’s 19-0 run in the third quarter.
“During that stretch in the third where we didn’t score, we had several wide open looks. We just couldn’t make them,” Skiles said. “Right from the beginning of the game, when we had a couple open looks, our balance was poor, we were jerking our follow-throughs, all the signs of a 12-foot birdie putt to win the Masters and shooting it about six feet past.”
Crawford, on the other hand, is finally feeling at home in the playoffs. Instead of faltering down the stretch, as he did in Game 5, he made a key basket that stymied the Bucks in their frenzied attempt to rally from a 20-point deficit.
“We knew the season could be over, and nobody was ready to go home,” Crawford said. “It doesn’t feel like it’s time to go home yet.”
Funny, coming from a guy who’d never played on a winning team until this season.
Crawford doesn’t sound like a playoff rookie anymore.
AP freelance writer Paul M. Imig in Milwaukee contributed to this report.