CLIPPERS BENCH TAKING OVER 4TH QUARTERS

LOS ANGELES – There is such thing as a reliable bench or a deep bench or even a game-altering bench. And then there’s the group the Clippers have put together.

In the last two fourth quarters the Clippers starters have logged as much playing time as the 19,060 fans in Staples Center: none. The bench, in the meantime, has outscored opponents by 23 points, shot 56.3%, dished out 17 assists on 27 field goals, and nabbed 10 steals.

On Saturday afternoon in a 117-99 win over the Phoenix Suns, the bench opened the fourth quarter with a two-point lead. Within 3:18 it was 11. Three days earlier, the bench extended a large lead that was passed along by the starters, helping the Clippers cruise past Dallas.  

“We want to put it away early, but with the way our team is put together our second team is just as capable of coming in and putting that lead on teams,” Blake Griffin said.

Griffin was amongst the starters in warm-ups Saturday, waving a towel and leaping out of his seat as Jamal Crawford poured in 13 of his team-high 21 points down the stretch and Eric Bledsoe pestered the Suns with two steals, both leading to breakaway dunks in the last 12 minutes of a game that swung from close to coasting in a Bledsoe-like flash.

“I think it can be overwhelming because usually when you go to the bench that’s when another team thinks they can make a run,” said reserve forward Matt Barnes, who had 13 points and eight rebounds in the game. “There’s no letup with our bench.”

The fourth quarter against the Suns certainly seemed overwhelming.

It started at 12:00, with Crawford, Barnes, Bledsoe, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf on the floor together for the first time since the second quarter. Sixteen seconds later, Crawford drilled a 19-foot jump shot and after Wesley Johnson answered on the other end, the Clippers’ leading scorer nailed two consecutive shots, a 3-pointer off an offensive rebound by Turiaf and runner between two defenders.

“He was kind of second-guessing himself and not really shooting and passing up open shots,” Barnes said. “I told him [at the end of the third quarter] he has to be aggressive. With our second unit, he’s our leading scorer, he’s the leading scorer on the team, so we needed him to get going and everyone else kind of fed off that.”

Crawford took Barnes and others’ support to heart: “Sometimes I’m so self-conscious, I’ll miss a few and I’m like, ‘I’m going to stop [shooting]. But my teammates [say], ‘No, you shoot the ball.’”

Next came Bledsoe’s burst. Thirteen seconds after Crawford’s seventh point of the period, the jitterbug guard swiped an errant pass by Michael Beasley and turned it into a right-handed dunk going the other direction, leading to a Phoenix timeout.

“He’s a terror,” Crawford said of Bledsoe. “Honestly, if I’m a point guard I’d hate to bring the ball up against him because even if you beat him, he’s so athletic and so strong he can recover.”

Bledsoe nabbed another steal on the Suns’ next possession, digging the ball out from Jermaine O’Neal and Crawford found Odom for a 4-foot bank shot 12 seconds later. Bledsoe would score eight points in the quarter with four assists.

At that point, the lead had ballooned to 11. Turiaf blocked a shot by O’Neal two possessions later and even though Luis Scola flipped the ball back in O’Neal was promptly hit with two technical fouls as the teams returned to the other end. O’Neal was ejected and Crawford made both free throws, extending his Clippers record for consecutive free throws to 55.

“Our second unit is almost scary when we’re rolling,” Crawford said. “Everyone has their role. If you think about it we’ve all played almost 30 games together now, if you count preseason, so everybody’s very comfortable in what they do.”

The Clippers and Suns traded baskets for much of the remainder of the quarter, but the bench continued their dogged assault at the rim. Turiaf, Bledsoe and Barnes all had dunks in a 3-minute stretch and afterwards, Griffin, Chris Paul and the starters all had a lot to talk about.

“It’s very unique,” Paul said. “Every team in the league would love to have what we have. Teams usually have one or two dynamic players that come off their bench, but we come in with a group of starters.”

Asked about how the team deals with having so much depth and so many players that are eager to play, Odom was candid in his response.

“You can never have too many good players,” said Odom, who has 30 rebounds in the last four games, including eight Saturday. “When I think about the playoffs and going deep into the playoffs, there’s always guys coming off the bench hitting big shots, playing 4, 5, 6 big minutes, whatever it is, and that’s what we need. We need everyone to be successful and get to where we want to get.”