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With a supercharged bench, Clippers are never out of their depth

A reserve unit featuring Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe and others is averaging 41.7 points, second in NBA, and has helped make Clippers an elite team.

January 18, 2013|By Broderick Turner, Los Angeles Times
  • Ronny Turiaf, Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe watch the Clippers play on Dec. 27.
Ronny Turiaf, Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe watch the Clippers… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Eric Bledsoe dribbled the basketball on the wing during a recent Clippers game, his eyes darting from Ronny Turiaf down low to Jamal Crawford working his way around a Lamar Odom screen.

When Crawford was clear, Bledsoe delivered a pass to the veteran guard, who took two dribbles before he was double-teamed by his man and Odom's defender. Crawford passed to Odom, who surveyed the floor to see a closely guarded Matt Barnes behind the three-point line.

Then, Odom drew the attention of another defender as he penetrated the lane, providing an opening for his pass to Turiaf for a dunk.

The Clippers' bench is a mix of youth and age — Bledsoe is 23, Grant Hill is 40 — and award winners: both Odom and Crawford have been named the NBA's sixth man of the year. And the reserves' play this season has drawn raves, with many basketball observers saying the Clippers have the best collection of talent coming off the bench in the league.

They certainly share the basketball. They score in bunches, defend, get out on the fastbreak and play at such a high level that it has allowed the Clippers' starters to get a lot of rest this season.

In Denver Coach George Karl's view, the Clippers' bench is special because of its "professional intensity.

"And they've played — I don't know if this is any offense to their starting unit — but I think they play harder than the first unit," Karl said recently. "For some reason I came up with the word 'Tasmanian devil.' They have this furious intensity to them."

The numbers don't tell the entire story about the Clippers' bench, but they do show how dominating their reserves have been this season.

They are averaging 41.7 points a game as a unit, second-best in the NBA behind San Antonio's bench (41.9). By comparison, last season the Clippers' reserves averaged only 26.5 points (26th-best). But that was before the team bolstered its bench talent by adding Barnes, Crawford, Odom, Turiaf and Hill in the off-season.

The Clippers' bench averages 18.5 rebounds (third-best), 8.7 assists (fourth), 4.7 steals (No. 1) and 3.6 blocked shots (second). They also shoot 45.4% from the field (seventh).

"The Clippers' bench is probably the best in the league," TNT analyst Shaquille O'Neal said during a recent game. "They average a lot of points coming off the bench. They are very fun to watch, a very entertaining group.

"They are playing at a high level that I've never seen the Clippers organization play at before. The arena is filled up. I can remember when I was playing, the Clippers' games were never filled up. But you walk in here and it's looking like the original Staples Center that I built."

O'Neal laughed and walked back to his seat to watch the Clippers' bench play some more.

It helps that all of the reserves know their roles.

Crawford provides offense. He's averaging 16.7 points, third-best on the team and tied with New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith for the league's highest scoring average for a reserve.

Barnes stretches the floor with his three-point shooting (36.1%) and is averaging a career-high 11.3 points. He runs the floor and can defend three positions.

Odom is an all-around player. He'll rebound, as his 5.6 per-game average shows.

Bledsoe, the backup to Chris Paul at point guard, is an energizer and defender. He averages 1.6 steals, 2.7 assists and 8.7 points.

And Turiaf sets screens and plays defense.

"We understand that we all need each other to succeed," said Turiaf, who has played for six NBA teams. "We need Jamal to score. We need Matt to slash and score. We need L.O. [Odom] to be a defensive presence and make plays. They need me to be able to protect and plug all the holes. We need Bledsoe to be Bledsoe and to be aggressive.

"And by doing that, it's like a beautiful painting. We can't just have one layer. If you have just one layer, it's not great. But when you have all those little layers, however small they are, it makes a beautiful painting. And that's what I think this bench is all about."

And to think that the Clippers just now are incorporating Hill into the picture.

Hill has played in the last four games and has brought his high basketball IQ and unselfish style of play to the court.

It's up to Coach Vinny Del Negro to figure out ways to use all the reserves and try to keep them all happy.

"Vinny uses them perfectly," TNT analyst Reggie Miller said. "You think about Eric Bledsoe. He probably could be starting, say, for 15 teams in the NBA. Easily. And the sixth man of the year is Jamal Crawford. I think he found the perfect home here.

"You add Ronny Turiaf. You have Matt Barnes, who is playing out of his mind. Lamar. Grant Hill. I mean, this team is legitimately 10- or 11-deep."

The only thing is, the Clippers' bench hasn't come up with a nickname yet.

They've discussed it and they've even enlisted the help of fans. But nothing has caught on.

"They're good. There's no other way to slice it," New Orleans Coach Monty Williams said. "I don't think they've ever had anybody like Jamal that can come in and drop 25, 35 points. Then Matt Barnes is a guy who plays with toughness. They have a number of 'bigs' who know their roles.

"Turiaf is a guy who may not play for three or four games and come out and play the next game as if he was a starter. And Bledsoe is a guy that I really like. He's a bulldog. He can defend. He can attack the basket. He's getting better at shooting the ball. They just have a really good bench. There's no other way to put it. I'd put their team up with any team as far as depth is concerned."

broderick.turner@latimes.com

twitter.com/BA_Turner

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