The NBA Playoffs start this week and the key to the LA Clippers' championship hopes is a group of talented reserves who embrace their role as a backup act.
Whenever the Los Angeles Clippers' reserves witness a high-flying slam dunk by one of the starters, cheers and high fives spread across the bench. So it was no surprise that when center DeAndre Jordan threw down a monstrous two-handed jam against the Philadelphia 76ers in February, the bench erupted. "Everyone was out of their seats, jumping up and down," backup guard Jamal Crawford recalls. "I turned around and saw Lamar [Odom] had taken up four chairs, lying across all the seats, screaming. We always go crazy for our guys. It's a party every game."
But this season, the Clippers' starting five have been sideline cheerleaders almost as much as the reserves. Collectively, the supporting cast — featuring guards Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, and Willie Green; veteran forwards Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf, and Grant Hill; and center Ryan Hollins — helped L.A. secure first place in the Pacific Division at the All-Star break. Through the end of February, the Clippers were in the top three in the NBA in points, rebounds, assists, and steals per game off the bench, making their second unit almost as difficult to stop as Lob City's starters.
The Clippers' subs will play an even more important role as the team's focus shifts to the postseason. "Our bench has provided great balance in terms of minutes and offense. They can cause havoc defensively and create turnovers," head coach Vinny Del Negro says. "These guys will be a very important factor in our push throughout the playoffs."
A Tribe Is Born
Nicknamed "A Tribe Called Bench," a nod to the early 1990s rap group A Tribe Called Quest, L.A.'s tight-knit group has a mix of youth (Bledsoe is 23) and experience (Hill is 40), two former Sixth Men of the Year (Crawford and Odom), and a towering presence in the 7-foot Hollins. Six of the reserves are new to the roster, but they gelled early in the season and have helped shape the culture of the team.
Through the end of February, L.A.'s supersubs outscored opposing benches in 45 of 60 games, and they totaled more points than the opponent's starters seven times. The Clippers are second in the league in bench points with 40.4 per game, (last year they ranked 26th), including a 64-point effort against the Denver Nuggets in December.
"Most of them would be starters on any other team in the league. That's how good they are," L.A.'s All-Star point guard Chris Paul says. "I've been on many teams where I come out of the game, and I'm thinking, 'Please, just hold on.' With our bench, I expect us to have a bigger lead when I return to the game."
It's not unusual to see the Clippers' starters resting for long stretches while the second unit takes over. For four games in early December, during their franchise-record 17-game win streak, L.A. didn't use any starters in the final 12 minutes. "They've sustained leads and have won games for us in the fourth quarter," Del Negro says. "They've given us a big boost late in a lot of games."
Without a doubt, the anchor of the bench is Crawford, a favorite to reclaim the Sixth Man of the Year award. (He won it in 2009–10 with Atlanta.) He leads all NBA reserves with 16.8 points per game and ranks third behind Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant in fourth-quarter scoring with 361 points. "He makes the tough shots and is a difficult guy to slow down once he gets going," Del Negro says.
The rest of the second rotation features the 6' 1" Bledsoe, a finisher at the rim and a high-energy defender; Barnes, a gritty defender averaging a career-high 10.3 points; Odom, a versatile championship vet (he won two rings with the Lakers); and Green, a solid backup for guard Chauncey Billups. The Clippers also have Turiaf and Hollins, who provide size and set screens, and Hill, a seven-time All-Star in his 18th season.
Even their crosstown rivals are taking note of just how stacked the Clippers are. "You have to hone in on every guy who comes in," Bryant says. "With Jamal, Lamar, Matt, and Bledsoe, they have a lot of explosiveness coming off the bench."
Band of Brothers
The bench players have as much fun off the court as they do on it. "If you catch me out eating or at the movies while we're playing in another city," says Crawford, "you're going to catch all 13 of my teammates, too."
Says Barnes, "This is one of the closest teams I've been on. It's always someone's birthday, whether it's our wives or kids, so we're at each other's parties, and we attend charity events. All the bonding has had an impact on the court. It translates to the good chemistry."
It also develops trust. When Paul missed 12 games in January and February with a bruised right knee, Del Negro called Bledsoe off the bench to start. "I'm so comfortable when guys like Eric are on the court," Paul says. "You just can't match his speed. Eric is a freak of an athlete. You think you can get a layup on him, but he'll block your shot."
The Clippers also trust the bench with tough defensive assignments. Hill was tasked with guarding the New York Knicks' hot shooter Carmelo Anthony on February 10. Although Anthony finished with 42 points, he was worn down by Hill's defense in the fourth quarter — he only made one basket — and L.A. won the game 102–88.
Knowing Your Role
The second rotation may get a lot of praise for their efforts, but do they ever get tired of waiting to be called into the game? Never, says Crawford. "There's a bigger picture involved," he says. "We're working toward a championship goal, and we are all comfortable with our roles."
Last season, the Clippers made the playoffs for the first time in six years but lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the conference semifinals. This year, the team expects to go much further with its dedicated bench known for more than just cheering. And when they do, it'll be a party.
Photograph by John W. McDonough