Over the first eight games of December, during which the Wolves went 4-4, culminating in their second loss to the Phoenix Suns, Jamal Crawford shot 34 percent from the floor (30 percent from three,) scored eight points per game, averaged a 4.5 game score, and was looking bad.
This was merely a continuation of a poor season. Up to that point, Crawford was shooting under 40 percent on the year, and playing the defense we all expected: None.
It was, honestly, about what I was expecting. Crawford, despite his “Forever 21” moniker, is not, in fact, 21 anymore. He’s 37, and while it’s quite an accomplishment for anyone to remain in the league as long as he has, there is no question he has been declining.
However, the Wolves had very few options at the wing behind their two minutes monsters Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins. This was obvious in the summer, and it did not seem like Crawford and Shabazz Muhammad, dropped from an already thin rotation, were the answer. Throughout his struggles, however, it was clear that he had the respect of Butler, the Wolves best player and emerging leader, and was playing a positive role in the locker room, where he’s undeniably popular among his teammates.
And then Crawford, after speaking publicly about his lack of minutes, got hot. Over the last five games, all wins, he’s averaging 17 a night in 23.6 minutes per, on 55 percent shooting, and an average game score of 12.
More than the mere numbers, he’s been instrumental in the Wolves winning streak, starting with his epic performance in the comeback win against the Blazers. He scored 16 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter that night, helping the Wolves erase a nine point deficit against a key division competitor.
He was similarly a major factor late in the two wins the Wolves enjoyed over the Nuggets during this streak. His scoring touch has been especially welcome given the struggles of Andrew Wiggins during the month of December, so much so that he’s been eating into Wiggins’ fourth quarter minutes recently.
But his emergence has also made Tom Thibodeau once again willing to play small. As Crawford has demanded more minutes with his play, we’ve seen more of a three wing look, with Jamal out there alongside both Wiggins and Jimmy Butler. It was something that didn’t work well early in the season when Thibs tried it and then abandoned it, but with Crawford making shots, it looks much better.
As much as his contribution on the scoreboard is welcome, Crawford is an entertainer—at least when the shots are going in. He’s a fancy dribbler, not so much in service of getting to the rim, but instead to get his defender just off-balanced enough so he can elevate for a jumper. He takes difficult, contested shots. At times he seems to hunt them, dribbling into defensive coverage and still pulling the trigger on a variety of pull-ups, leaners, and seemingly off-balance flings that, when they go in, are absolute back-breakers for opponents.
Going forward, we may see more of a three wing look, this time due to the absence of Jeff Teague, who sprained his knee in last night’s win and is expected to miss significant time. I would not be surprised to see lineups without a traditional point guard, and instead Crawford and Butler handling those duties, something they often do late in games even with Teague on the floor.
I don’t know how long this hot streak is going to last. He certainly won’t shoot 55 percent for the rest of the season. Crawford, due to his defensive deficiencies, needs to score well to be of real use, and there will be times when he doesn’t.
But it’s been an exciting string of wins for the Timberwolves, who find themselves at 22-13 and solidly fourth in the Western Conference. These wins over the likes of the Blazers and Nuggets, are especially big given what seems likely to be a season-long jockeying for playoff position.
I was not a fan of this signing, and still think they need better wing depth. But Jamal Crawford has played a big role in an important stretch in the Wolves season. For that, he deserves kudos. May his jumpers continue to fall.