TEAMS ADJUSTING TO CLIPPERS BENCH

After a dominant start to the season by the high-flying Clippers bench, opponents have made defensive adjustments to try and slow them down.

Jamal Crawford

ATLANTA – It was surprising, if for no other reason, because the Clippers bench has been so dominant for much of the first month of the season.

They were on the floor together at the start of the second quarter Saturday against Hawks. The now-familiar five-man unit of Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe and Ryan Hollins that helped blow past the defending-champion Miami Heat less than two weeks ago and overwhelmed the Chicago Bulls last weekend.

With a 24-21 lead in tow, the bench was once again positioned to extend it. But the Hawks, in Crawford’s words “hit first,” stringing together a run that spanned more than 6 minutes of the period, compelled two timeouts from Head Coach Vinny Del Negro, and caused two Clippers turnovers and four missed jumpers from beyond 20 feet. The group that had so commonly ball-hawked and bullied its way to lopsided second quarters of their own watched a three-point lead morph into a 13-point deficit.

“We got off to a good start and in the second quarter [the Hawks] sort of jumped on us,” point guard Chris Paul said. “That’s unusual for us because usually our first team is the one that gets jumped on and it’s our bench that brings us back into the game. It’s a long season. The bench can’t bail us out every night.”

Paced by Crawford’s 18.6-point per game clip, the bench is averaging 40 points as a group (fourth in the NBA). In the first half they went scoreless.

Crawford said the Hawks employed a zone defense for the duration of their run, something the Clippers have yet to see when the second unit comes into the game. “They played the starters man-to-man and when the bench came in they went zone the whole time,” he said. “They were able to get some stops and get confidence and were able to get out and run.”

It was only a matter of time before opponents adjusted to the way the bench would blitz teams in the early going. Before the game, Del Negro said teams were showing more of a propensity to trap Crawford, who had seven 20-point games in his first 11 games.

“Teams have been doing that (trapping) earlier [in the season] a little bit as well,” Del Negro said. “We just have to do a better job recognizing it and picking them apart on it and getting our guys to recognize it a little bit sooner and Jamal has to do a better job with his setup to get open.”

Atlanta’s focus on Crawford was disruptive to the rest of the offense and it was somewhat of a carryover from a night earlier in Brooklyn, when L.A.’s bench scored a season-low 24 points, after the Nets brought an extra defender to the Clippers’ leading scorer in an attempt to prevent him from getting to the middle of the floor.

Prior to the Clippers’ four-game road trip, the bench roles seemed ideal: Crawford, the scorer; Bledsoe, the initiator; Barnes, the wing defender; Hollins, the shot blocker; and Odom, the potential difference maker.

And while teams are gearing up to stop Crawford, according to Barnes, the bench struggles Saturday started on the defensive end.

“Obviously, we have a focus on defense and I think we let our defense slip,” Barnes said. “They had an 18-0 run, but on the offensive end we just need to get a little more ball movement. I think teams are prepared for Jamal. He’s had a great season thus far breaking people down 1-on-1, sometimes they’re sending two, maybe three defenders at him, and sometimes going zone. So we just have to be more effective moving the ball and putting him a position to be more effective.”