DUDLEY EMBODIES CLIPPERS RUN OF TEAM SUCCESS

PHOENIX – The guy who replaced Jared Dudley in the starting lineup two months ago jumped in front of a question Dudley was asked after his 16-point performance in Minnesota.

Dudley, who had played sparingly throughout the month of March, was coming off his best game since January. It was his first start since Jan. 18. He was at power forward instead of small forward. He was guarding Kevin Love for most of the 114-104 win.

But Matt Barnes, whose locker was to Dudley’s right, leaned in when Dudley was asked about how it felt to make such an impact in Blake Griffin’s stead after weeks of not having much of a role.

“It feels good to play,” Barnes interrupted.

Dudley agreed, nodding at Barnes who in turn nudged Dudley.

It was a moment of insight into the Clippers (53-22) this season; the way they have come together. In the wake of injuries and mounting pressure as the Playoffs loom, they have played their best basketball, winning 16 of the last 18 and closing in on the No. 3 seed in the West and a second consecutive Pacific Division title.

Perhaps it’s Dudley who embodies much of this run. Or Willie Green. Or Ryan Hollins.

All three are veterans that get called upon intermittently to step in and play a part in keeping the victories coming.

“That’s why I like this team,” Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said. “I mean, Ryan (Hollins), [Dudley], [Green], they don’t know if they are going to play but they are ready to play. I don’t know what else you can ask as a coach.”

Take Dudley, for example. He lost his starting job to Barnes on Jan. 20. He lost his reserve spot on Mar. 4 after injuring his back and subsequently opening the door for newcomer Danny Granger. He did not play more than 29 minutes in a game until Mar. 31 when he was on the floor for 35 replacing Griffin, who sat out with lower back spasms.

Two nights later, returning for the second time to his former home in Phoenix, Dudley may not play much again. Griffin could come back, sending Dudley, who has appeared in three straight games after receiving DNP-CDs in five of his previous six, to the bench again.

“You show your character through the good times and the bad times and for me it’s just about being professional,” Dudley said. “I feel like I’m going to have a long career and you don’t want to get a bad reputation for certain things. You want to stay ready. And that’s all I’ve been doing.”

But it hasn’t been easy for Dudley. He was pegged to be a starter and help space the floor for Chris Paul and Griffin. Despite shooting 36.3 percent from 3-point range, he has struggled to find consistency in his jumper. And once he went to the bench, it’s been a challenge to earn his way back into the rotation.

“It’s difficult with this team because we don’t practice too often,” Dudley said. “So, you don’t really have an opportunity to go at guys in practice and do stuff like that. When we do practice, we have 14 guys who deserve to play so it’s been tough.

“It’s a deep team. We have a lot of guys. We have 14 guys that would play minutes on most teams. You have two star players that demand so much attention and spacing. You know, [Paul] when it comes to pick-and-roll. D.J. (DeAndre Jordan) has bought into his role defensively and you just plug the rest of the guys in. Guys are hitting shots and playing well. For us, it means handling our business, getting a high seed and getting ready for these Playoffs.”

From Griffin and Paul down, that’s the mentality that has permeated the roster.

“It’s great,” Rivers said, almost beaming in Minnesota. “I told the team this earlier and it was harder on [Dudley] because he was starting and then you go from starting to not playing to then playing the four more than the three. It’s tough, but it’s part of being a teammate. It really is and sometimes you don't always get it exactly the way you want it. But you can still be a part of something very successful and that’s what the others decided to do.”