SECOND UNIT SEEKING IDENTITY

A year removed from its time as the most dynamic and high-profile reserve corps in the NBA, the Clippers’ new second unit is still seeking to find an identity.

“Last year, I think we hit it off really, really quick and I think we were ahead of the curve,” said Jamal Crawford, who is one of three holdovers from a season ago. “Now, we’re trying to put a new group together.”

The second unit this season is expected to play an integral role again. How much will that compare to last season, when they ranked in the Practicetop four among NBA benches in every major statistical category, remains to be seen. The preseason, to some degree, has been a mixed bag.

They have shown progress, such as turning a five-point deficit to a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter against a Jazz team that had four starters on the floor Wednesday. And they have showed regression, losing a 17-point lead in Phoenix a week ago.

“It’s a work in progress that’s for sure,” Crawford said. “I think each day we’ll get a little better, a little bit more comfortable at it. Last year we had a special group as far as everybody knowing their role and knowing how to play off of each other, but there’s no doubt we’ll get to that level. We’re just not there yet.”

The group of Crawford, Darren Collison, Antawn Jamison, Byron Mullens and Ryan Hollins has been without forward Matt Barnes, who along with Crawford was one of the five most efficient players on the roster during their 2012-13 56-win regular season. Barnes returned to practice Thursday after sitting out seven games with a sore left calf. His absence has certainly been felt.

“Matt’s huge for that unit,” Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said. “Not having Matt also hasn’t allowed us to play the correct small units that we want to play.”

Barnes is expected to play in the Clippers’ preseason finale on Friday.

“It was frustrating,” Barnes said of missing time, “but also educational. I can see where I can have an effect on that second unit because our second unit doesn’t really have an identity. I think sitting back and watching the last [seven] games I really see where I can help, filling voids and really being that voice for the second unit to get us in what we need to do offensively and defensively.”

PracticeThe insertion of Barnes and Willie Green, who is sliding back to a reserve role with the J.J. Redick returning from a quad contusion, should help. It will likely open things up on the perimeter for Crawford, the scorer, and Collison, who has been a dynamo in seven exhibition games, averaging 16.4 points and 5.4 assists.

Crawford, though, is viewed once again as the cog in the entire unit. He was third on the team in scoring a year ago, and finished second to J.R. Smith in Sixth Man of the Year balloting.

“I like trying to create an identity with the second unit separate of the starters,” Rivers said. “And it’s nice when they have that go-to guy in that lineup. [Crawford] and Matt really, I would love to keep there because Matt brings the edge to the second unit and Jamal will bring in scoring, Collison brings in speed. We’ve got a lot of factors coming off the bench.”

Those factors have potential to be even better than a year ago.

Mullens has connected on 13 3-pointers, albeit on 44 attempts, and Jamison has shown why he was valued as a savvy veteran addition. He came in against the Jazz Wednesday after not expecting to play and spaced the floor, grabbed four rebounds and made a layup off a dish from Crawford. The duo gives the Clippers a scoring punch in the front court that did not exist last season. It’s one reason Barnes says there is potential for the group to be even better.

“I think we may have potential to be better and that’s not a knock on anyone from last year,” Barnes said. “I just think from D.C. (Collison) to Jamal, myself, Antawn, Byron, everyone can shoot the ball. That’s going to keep the floor wide open for D.C. to attack, for Jamal to attack, for me to get my backdoor cuts and for our bigs to stay spaced. So, we have the potential to be lethal.”Practice

Asked if the bench will once again be a five-man swap, much like a hockey line change, or piecing in a few players with starters, Rivers said, most likely the latter.

“I rarely play all five guys together,” Rivers said. “I do it in preseason because I’m trying to build that group. To be honest, if we have a lead it would be nice to come on and keep that lead, a big lead. My guess right now, at least with this team right now, there will probably always be a starter or two on the floor with the second unit. But we’ll see.”

Jamison said he likes the personnel the Clippers have off the bench.

“I think you have the personnel to mix and match guys off the bench and I think we have the personnel with the type of chemistry we’re developing as well as far as playing against each other in practice,” Jamison said. “Getting a feel for each other, knowing what Jamal likes to do, knowing the same thing with D.C. I think he has the luxury of doing a little bit of both with that. When the starters come in they dictate how the game is going to be played and get up, and our job is to come in and take the score even higher.”

It is just a matter of meshing it all together. 

“We’ll have our identity and be one of the top second units in the league,” Barnes said. “It just takes time. It’s a new system and new players and with myself being out it hasn’t really been that easy.”