Jordan Crawford winced with his left hand pressing against his lower back as he hobbled down the hallway from the Washington Wizards’ practice court toward the players’ lounge, where he was supposed to get a massage. The strain of carrying the Wizards against the Miami Heat the night before — when the team lost John Wall to an ejection — was apparently too much for a scrawny, perpetually slouching rookie.
“This is definitely hurting,” Crawford said, rubbing his lower back.
The Wizards appeared doomed to a lopsided loss to the Heat when Wall was tossed in the second quarter for swinging and connecting a forearm shiver at Zydrunas Ilgauskas’s rib cage, but Crawford refused to quit as he scored a career-high 39 points, becoming the first Washington rookie to reach that total since Tom Gugliotta did the same nearly 19 years ago.
Crawford may have to have another stellar performance Friday against the Cleveland Cavaliers after the NBA announced that Wall would be suspended one game without pay for “throwing a closed-fist and forearm” at Ilgauskas with 8 minutes 48 seconds left in the second quarter of the Wizards’ 123-107 loss.
After waiting most of the season for the chance to play, Crawford said he would take every possible precaution to make sure his back is ready for possibly more heavy lifting.
“It’s definitely going to be tough with John,” Crawford said. “But . . . you can just see more hunger in us right now. Each game, it really doesn’t matter who’s out, we’re going to give it our all.”
Crawford has been giving his all since arriving from the Atlanta Hawks in a five-player deal involving Kirk Hinrich at the trade deadline. Even though he played just 160 minutes in 16 games while backing up Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford in Atlanta, Crawford never doubted that he could have a night like the one he had Wednesday.
“I always felt I was capable,” Crawford said after scoring in double figures for the 12th consecutive game. “I have a lot of confidence in myself. It’s a blessing that God gave me an opportunity to come to Washington and take advantage.”
With the Wizards spending most of March without leading scorer Nick Young, Rashard Lewis, Josh Howard and Andray Blatche, Crawford had seven games with at least 20 points and finished the month as the Wizards’ leading scorer, barely edging Wall (18.2-18.1).
The Wizards (18-56) liked Crawford when they evaluated players for the draft last summer, and acquiring him was essential to completing the deal for Hinrich. They knew he had the ability to score, especially after he scored 30 points against them in the preseason game, but his performance in recent weeks has been a revelation.
“He’s not always going to have an open light like this, but you’ve got to give him credit. I told Nick, he might have to look and find out who Wally Pipp is,” Coach Flip Saunders said of Crawford. “We’ve been impressed. I’ve been more impressed with his competitiveness. He really is very competitive. A fighter. Really digs down deep. That’s a character we’re looking for in guys going forward.”
Wall has won Eastern Conference rookie of the month the past two months and will likely claim a third, but Crawford made a case to at least share the honors. He scored 25 points, including a tying jumper with 4.4 seconds remaining in regulation, in the 100-95 overtime win over Utah on Monday and had 25 points and a career-high 10 assists in a double-overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, as he and Wall became the first rookie duo in NBA history to have at least 25 points and 10 assists in the same game.
“They complement each other,” Saunders said. “They both have a lot of respect for each other. I think they like playing together.”
Wall and Crawford became the first pair of Washington rookies to average at least 18 points in the same month, and they are also first NBA pair to reach that mark since Marcus Thornton and Darren Collison last season for the New Orleans Hornets.
The two players knew each other before the trade, having worked out at the same facility in Los Angeles before the draft, and they have developed a solid chemistry on the court, with Crawford sparing Wall of all the ball-handling and playmaking responsibilities.
“Two people that can score the ball, but pass it as well,” Wall said. “You key on one, you have to worry about the other. It’s good. It’s kind of tough, when you don’t have anybody else out there. Everybody is already keying on me, trapping me and trying to keep me from getting to my spots.”
Crawford credited Wall for helping make his transition to Washington easier.
“He had confidence in me,” Crawford said. “He seen me play last year [in college at Xavier] and he saw me this summer, so he had confidence in me before I came. That helped out a lot — the starting point guard has confidence in you, tell you to do your thing, I just fed off him.”
And with Wall out, Crawford will again have to take on the role as scorer and playmaker.
“I’m comfortable with it,” Crawford said. “Whenever Coach want me to move the point, I try to do the best that I can for him. I’m doing everything that I can to be on the court.”