CLIPPERS BENCH CONTINUES TO BE A FACTOR

Matt Barnes, Ronny Turiaf, Jamal Crawford

PLAYA VISTA – The postseason is a time when rotations are supposed to shorten and starters and a select few reserves are supposed to decide games. No longer are 10 or 11 players supposed to see the court, more or less have an impact.

But the Clippers are different and it showed in their 112-91 Game 1 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies Saturday, when their vaunted bench scored 49 points and helped tilt the game on its axis in the second half.

Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro had been asked often leading up to the playoffs about how he intended to utilize a bench that contributed 40.1 points per game in the regular season, or 39.7% of the team’s scoring, and led the league in minutes played (21.4).

“I think we have a unique team and I think we’ll stay with it, the way we’ve been playing,” Del Negro said. “A few players may need a few more minutes, Chris [Paul] and Blake [Griffin’s] minutes have been up a little bit lately, but overall because at the beginning part of the season the bench was doing such a great job in the fourth quarter hopefully that will be a benefit for us.”

It certainly was a benefit in Game 1. Del Negro stuck with the group of Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ryan Hollins to open the second quarter and Ronny Turiaf, who had not played meaningful minutes since early March, played 9:12 in the second half in place of Hollins.

In regular season only Griffin and Paul averaged more than 25 minutes, and they played fewer per game than 45 other players in the league, including 19 of their fellow 22 All-Stars. Unlike a number of teams in the postseason, the balance and depth of the Clippers roster could be a factor, not only in ensuring Griffin and Paul are fresh, but actually turning the tide of games.

“That’s what our team has been about all season long, our balance and our bench,” Paul said. “Our bench is what gives us that edge that not every other team has and we’ve got to keep using it.”

“I think that can be advantage for us because rotations tend to get shorter,” Crawford said. “But I think for us, that’s one of our strengths. When teams get tired or weaker, we get stronger.”

Against the Grizzlies in Game 1, Crawford scored 13 points, making four of his first six shots. When he cooled down, Bledsoe emerged. The dynamic youngster had 13 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter, got to the rim at ease, and while Paul and Griffin played fewer than four minutes, Bledsoe was on the court for all 12 to close the game.

Grizzlies guard Jerryd Bayless, who led Memphis with 19 points off the bench, talked about Bledsoe after the game. “He played well tonight and he got some rebounds and got some easy looks at the hoop. We can’t give a guy like that easy looks at the hoop and he was to get a lot of easy looks.”

But that’s somewhat the beauty of the Clippers’ reserve corps, they come in waves, making it a challenge even for one of the fiercest defenses in the NBA. Turiaf on Saturday had five points and three rebounds in nine key minutes. A week ago, Grant Hill made a rare appearance to change the complexion of the final regular-season meeting between the two teams.

“I have confidence in all our guys,” Del Negro said. “Grant Hill’s helped us win games, Ronny Turiaf’s helped us win games, Willie Green has helped us win games, so I have no hesitation putting them in if I feel like they can help us.”

Del Negro found all the right guys to help out Saturday, plugging Bledsoe in during the fourth and choosing Turiaf over Hollins in the second half. And while the intensity and gravity of the game increased in the playoffs, the Clippers looked very much like they did when their bench was at its best early in the year.

“They give us a tremendous lift,” Griffin said. “The athleticism and the experience and the leadership we have coming off the bench is just as strong as our first five. They’ve been huge all season long and they did a great job last night of coming, extending the lead, maintaining the lead, and then at the end of the game we had a mix and match of starters and bench guys in. We feel we have the best bench in the league.”

STAYING FOCUSED

After practice Sunday the Clippers talked about not being satisfied with a Game 1 victory.

“You’ve got to come out with the same mindset and play with the same intensity and understand that there may be changes made or they feel like they don’t want to make changes they did what they wanted to do,” Paul said.

The Clippers and Grizzlies play Game 2 Monday night at Staples Center before heading to Memphis for Games 3 and 4.

“We executed our game plan [in Game 1]. We did a great job,” Caron Butler said. “We know they’re going to keep fighting. There’s no letup in that ballclub. We’ve got to be prepared for the challenge.”