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Pieces – Crawford especially – come together for Blazers' second unit

by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Armon Johnson (right) tries to make a move against Nicolas Batum during Friday night's Trail Blazers Fan Fest at the Rose Garden.

Nate McMillan and Jamal Crawford are together. Finally.

It's too bad Paul Lawrence isn't around to see it.

Lawrence was a Seattle-based NFL agent of mostly NFL players who died of a heart attack in February at age 45.

He was a close friend of both McMillan and Crawford, representing both at times.

'Paul and I would talk about Jamal, and Jamal told me he and Paul would talk about me,' said McMillan, who missed a practice and flew to Utah on game day last season in order to attend Lawrence's memorial service. 'He told Jamal he would be in Portland playing one day. He won't get the opportunity to see it come true.'

When McMillan was a star guard and 'Mr. Sonic' while playing in Seattle in the 1990s, Crawford was a promising teenager growing up in the city.

As Crawford was weighing options of offers by teams for whom to play as a free agent over the last week, McMillan's presence as Portland's head coach came into play.

'It had a huge impact,' the veteran guard said. 'I used to sneak into the Sonics' (practice) facility. Nate was talking more trash back then. He used to tell me about my jumper and stuff. He gave me a lot of pointers. That's stuff that always sticks with you.

'I have such respect for him. I know how he coaches and I feel like I can help bring something a little bit different to the team.'

During McMillan's playing days in Seattle, the city was rich with young guard prospects such as Crawford, Brandon Roy and Jason Terry.

'I had an opportunity to see Brandon and Jamal and Jason grow up,' McMillan said. 'Going into coaching and seeing their talent, it was a dream to one day be able to coach them on the floor.'

Using the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions and the veteran's minimum, interim general manager Chad Buchanan did a nice job plugging holes on the Blazers' bench.

For a combined $8 million, Buchanan added savvy and long-range firepower in Crawford and beef in Kurt Thomas and Craig Smith.

Portland's second unit will now field Crawford at both guards - though he is a more of a 2 or shooting guard - Nicolas Batum at small forward, Smith at power forward and Thomas at center.

Youngsters Nolan Smith, Elliot Williams, Armon Johnson and perhaps Luke Babbitt will also get a shot at regular playing time, though each will have to earn his minutes.

McMillan plans to feature Crawford's scoring prowess with the reserve group and wants to go deeper with his rotation than usual, because of the shortened, compacted season.

'I like the depth now,' the seventh-year Blazer coach said. 'This season more than any other season, depth is going to be very important.

'These guys have to be ready to play. Adding Jamal, Craig and Kurt with the guys we have, we bring experience and shouldn't have a drop-off when our guys rotate in.'

That's an overstatement. Portland's starting five will be much stronger than the second unit. But the reserves should more than hold their own against counterparts from opponents this season.

The 6-5 Crawford, 31, can light it up. He's a volume shooter who has averaged 15.4 points through his 11-year NBA career, including a 20.6-point season with New York in 2007-08.

Crawford is a 41-percent career shooter from the field, but it's that low partially because he takes about 40 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. He has shot .350 from 3-point range and an excellent .846 from the foul line through his career.

Thomas and Smith are similiar - bangers, thick bodies, players who don't often shoot but handle the dirty work in the middle.

The 6-9, 230-pound Thomas is, at 39, the oldest player in the NBA. Portland is his ninth NBA stop in 17 seasons. In his heyday with the Knicks in the early 2000s, Thomas scored in double figures and averaged between six and nine rebounds a game. Now he'll give you 15 minutes of lug work in the middle (think Juwan Howard in 2009-10).

Smith, 28, is in his sixth NBA season and, except for starting part-time one season with Minnesota, has always been in a bench role. Listed at 6-7 (I'm guessing 6-5 1/2) and 265 (he says that's accurate), he'll use his physicality whenever possible. A .556 career shooter from the field, he'll probably play about as much as Thomas, perhaps a little less.

Thomas has averaged one rebound every 3.7 minutes throughout his career, Smith one per 4.5 minutes.

While Thomas has plenty of playoff experience - 96 games in 11 seasons - Crawford has made the postseason only twice, the last two seasons with Atlanta. Smith, who has played for the Timberwolves and the L.A. Clippers, has never gone beyond the regular season.

Thomas and Smith are both former teammates of Portland center Marcus Camby. Thomas and Camby were together four years in New York, including the abbreviated 1999 campaign in which the Knicks reached the NBA finals. Smith played with Camby with the Clippers for the first half of the 2009-10 season, until Camby was traded to the Blazers.

Smith and Williams stood out during Friday night's Fan Fest exhibition scrimmage at the Rose Garden.

The 6-2 Smith, Portland's No. 1 draft choice from Duke, shows the poise of a player who played four years in a big-time program. He scored 10 points and showed decision-making skills, which should earn him playing time right off the bat.

Williams, considered a rookie since he missed all of last season with knee problems, is a high flier who scored a scrimmage-high 19 points. The 6-5 former Memphis standout can shoot some and get up and down the court. He'll get a shot to play early, too.

Crawford seems to have plenty of charisma and should be a positive force in the locker room. He oozed respect for McMillan during Friday's media availabililty, speaking of all the injury misfortunes in recent years.

'I told Coach that he's done a heck of a job with everything's that been thrown his way,' Crawford said. 'That's tough to deal with for any team. He has made do with whatever he's had.

'Now, all the pieces are in place. I want to be another creator and playmaker. I'm not trying to come in and take over. I just want to add to what's already here.'

The free-agent acquisitions have strengthened the Blazer depth. Crawford, for sure, is a potent weapon.

'We've gotten better,' Aldridge said. 'Jamal is instant offense. He'll make two (defenders) play him, and that will open up things inside. He's a huge threat to make 3s. He's going to be big for us.'

McMillan coaching, Crawford bombing. Paul Lawrence would have loved it.