Wild-card Crawford becomes C's ace

BOSTON -- Brad Stevens, the Boston Celtics' first-year coach, always knew Jordan Crawford had a knack for the big shot.

His fifth-seeded Butler team having upset top-ranked Syracuse in 2010, Stevens was in the crowd in Salt Lake City watching sixth-seeded Xavier play second-seeded Kansas State in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament when Crawford hit a 3-pointer from what seemed like nearby West Jordan, Utah, to force a second overtime session.

Most conservative estimates put it at 35 feet. When it's told in the future, legend will put it somewhere between 50 feet and a football field (judge for yourself in this snapshot). Crawford came off a high pick-and-roll, found an inch of separation, and drilled the contested shot.

"The magnitude of that shot, I could not forget," Stevens said. "He has the ability to knock those shots down, and that's a good trait to have."

Crawford entered the 2013-14 season with basically no expectations. Brought in at last season's trade deadline to be a wild card for the postseason-bound Celtics, Crawford's most noteworthy Boston moment came when he caused a bit of a dust-up while jawing at Carmelo Anthony after the Celtics' Game 5 win at Madison Square Garden in the first round of the playoffs.

Seven months later, as Boston prepares to return to New York for this season's first regular-season meeting with the New York Knicks on Sunday, Crawford has gone from a bit of an afterthought to one of the key cogs for the surprising leader of a disheveled Atlantic Division.

During Boston's past seven games, a stretch in which the Celtics are 5-2 overall, Crawford is averaging 16.3 points, 7.1 assists and 4 rebounds over 34 minutes per game. Crawford has led Boston in scoring in each of its past two games -- both wins -- and hit clutch late-game shots in both to prevent the opposing team from rallying all the way back.

In typical Crawford fashion, he takes it all in stride. He brushes off the notion that he's playing the best basketball of his career (in Boston, maybe, he relents) and shrugged off his late-game clutchness. "It's just the way the game went," he offered after Friday's win over the Denver Nuggets.

During Boston's past seven games, the Celtics own a sparkly 108.8 offensive rating when Crawford is on the floor. Not only is that a whopping 10 points higher than the team's season average (98.7), the rating dips to 95.5 when he's on the bench during that same seven-game span. The team's defensive rating with Crawford on the floor is 101.2 during these seven games, which is in line with the team's season average (101.8).

All of which is a fancy way of saying good things are happening with Crawford on the court, particularly on the offensive end. Ever since joining Boston's starting lineup, he has provided a calming presence alongside backcourt mate Avery Bradley by easing the ball-handling responsibilities. Crawford's player efficiency rating is at a career-high 18.9 (his career average is 14.3) and his true shooting percentage (adjusted for 3-point field goals) is also a career-best 57.1 percent.

Crawford is providing Boston with a much-needed offensive jolt and, while prone to dribble penetration, is working hard enough on the defensive end to mask being the weakest individual link. More importantly, he's providing that much-needed intangible. As Stevens has noted multiple times recently, "He's not scared of the moment."

No, Crawford is playing inspired basketball and some Celtics fans, who would have been OK with Boston moving him for nothing this offseason, are now left wondering how the team will possibly find enough minutes for Crawford once Rajon Rondo is healthy enough to return to the lineup.

For now, just enjoy the show. Recently, the Celtics' rebound rates spike with Crawford on the floor, the turnover percentage drops noticeably, and the pace quickens. Boston's lack of a true point guard opened the door for Crawford, who has taken full advantage of what's in front of him.

Maybe it shouldn't surprise us. Crawford isn't short of confidence, as his recent late-game exploits confirm.

"Confidence is most of it in the NBA," Crawford said. "If you're confident in yourself and you play as a team, you can make a lot of great things happen."

Like turning a so-called "wild card" into a steadying presence. Or helping a rebuilding team sit atop of the division at the quarter checkpoint of the season.

It's fair to say most didn't see any of this coming.

"You don't know how things are going to shake out," Crawford said of his expectations for this season. "You've just got to take it for what it is. Lucky, I got an opportunity [and] I'm taking advantage of it."