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Hawks' Crawford waits a little longer for playoffs
In this March 13, 2010, file photo, Atlanta Hawks' Jamal Crawford scores during an NBA basketball game against the Detroit Pistons in Atlanta. The Hawks' sixth-man extraordinaire is looking forward to his postseason debut, but nothing comes easy for a guy who's spent most of his career playing for some of the league's worst teams. - photo by Associated Press

ATLANTA — Jamal Crawford has waited 666 games and almost a decade to make it to the NBA playoffs for the first time.

What's a couple more days?

The Atlanta Hawks' sixth-man extraordinaire is eagerly looking forward to his postseason debut, but nothing comes easy for a guy who's spent most of his career playing for some of the league's worst teams.

Take this past Sunday night, when the Hawks thought they had clinched their spot with an overtime win over San Antonio. Not so fast. Turns out, an improbable scenario had been overlooked: A possible four-way tie for the last three spots, which would leave Atlanta on the outside.

"Unbelievable," said Crawford, though he's not too concerned. "I know we'll get there," he quickly added after practice Monday.

He's definitely waited long enough.               

Just two others have been in more regular-season games than Crawford without making it to the playoffs. He's played in 666 — hmm, could that be another ominous sign? — for a staggering drought surpassed only by Tom Van Arsdale (929) and Otto Moore (682), according to STATS LLC.

"I don't wish that on anybody," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "When you play NBA basketball, you're meant to play playoff basketball. That's when you see a whole new level of play on the floor. For a guy to have gone nine years without experiencing that, it's tough. Really tough."

The Hawks, tied with Boston for the third spot in the Eastern Conference, merely need one more win — or a Chicago loss — to wrap up their third straight trip to the playoffs.

Crawford is eager to find out what all the fuss is about.

"It really hasn't hit me, honestly," he said. "I think it will hit me after the last game of the regular season. I'll know it's really here the night before the game. I'm sure I'll have some butterflies, but I have butterflies before every game. I'll come out and try to put my best foot forward, try to help my team get as far as possible."

Crawford never envisioned it taking this long getting to the playoffs, though he should have had an inkling what was in store that very first season. After being drafted eighth overall by Cleveland, he was immediately dealt to the Chicago Bulls, who had totally dismantled their dynasty after winning six championships with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

As a rookie, Crawford played for a team that went 15-67 — 26 games out of the final playoff spot.

It didn't get much better from there.

Over the first nine years of his career, playing for Chicago, New York and Golden State, Crawford was part of teams that went a combined 231-507 (.313). He never played on a team that won more than 33 games or finished within seven games of the playoffs, even though he developed into a prolific scorer who became only the fourth player in NBA history to score 50 points in a game with three different teams.

The first few years he missed out on the playoffs, Crawford would often attend games in nearby cities. But he grew tired of watching others have all the fun. He would head to the gym or the court behind his home to shoot hoops, usually around the time that postseason games were tipping off.

"I would say to myself, 'They're still playing, so I'm still playing,'" he remembered.

Not that he had any illusions about filling the biggest void in his career.

"Nah," he said, "I was just more frustrated than anything. I would take it out on the court."

Then there are players such as his Atlanta teammate, Maurice Evans, who's never missed the playoffs in his seven-year career. They have trouble relating at all to what Crawford went through over the last nine years.

"I'm not taking it for granted at all, but I can't imagine being done on April 14th every year, of whatever it is," Evans said. "I'm happy Jamal will get a chance to experience it. I'm sure he'll be really ready and have a great playoffs."

Before getting to Atlanta, where he's the leading scorer (17.9 points a game) among players who haven't started a game this season, Crawford couldn't help but wonder if he was to blame.

"Oh yeah, definitely," he conceded. "I went through every scenario I possibly could. I wondered if I was part of (the problem). But it's like I tell people all the time: you win as a team, you lose as a team. I know now it was never me personally. When we won, it wasn't just me doing it. Same when we lose.

"It goes both ways. I just had to be patient. I knew it was a tough situation. I just prayed and prayed and prayed about it. Now I'm here."

Crawford finally caught a break last summer when the rebuilding Warriors decided to clear out salary-cap space and dealt him to the Hawks, a team that has steadily improved since winning a franchise-low 13 games in 2004-05.

Atlanta had been to the playoffs two years in a row even with one of the league's youngest teams, reaching the second round a year ago. While keenly aware that his postseason odds had improved dramatically, Crawford didn't take anything for granted. Throughout the first half of the year, he always made sure to put an "if" in front of any talk about playing games beyond the regular season.

"I knew I was going to the playoffs, but you never know. I didn't want to jinx anything," he said. "Anything can happen. I didn't want to take it for granted. I've been in that situation before."

One more win and the wait will be over.