Newest Clippers Fit Right In As Backup Unit Thrives In Opener

PORTLAND, Ore. – Before every practice in the week off between the end of the preseason and Thursday’s opening night win in Portland, a few things would routinely occur.

Blake Griffin would get up shots on the side of the court, rookie Diamond Stone would work 1-on-1 with Clippers assistant coaches and a veteran, typically Chris Paul.

And at the court on the far end of the practice facility, roughly 30 minutes before the rest of the team gathered together, the backup unit would work off to the side running through plays and getting familiar. It’s that type of work that Marreese Speights believes helped make a reserve unit that featured two players who’d never worn a Clippers uniform before look like they’d been playing together for years in a 114-106 win.

“These last nine days we’ve had off have been like another training camp,” Speights said.

It’s more work for a player who did plenty of it this summer trimming down. Speights felt he was out of shape toward the end of last year, and he wanted to change that.

From that point to where he was Thursday, standing victorious in the Portland postgame locker room, he said he had lost around 30 pounds.

Speights looked spry as he scored 15 points in his Clippers debut. He went 4-for-8 from the floor and 2-for-3 from long distance, including a 3-pointer that tied the game at 76 to help give the Clippers a late boost.

The bench unit also gave the starters an early one.

A lot’s been made of head coach Doc Rivers and the Clippers staggering more this year, making sure one of their stars is on the court at all times. Rivers left Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in as a few of the reserves made their way onto the court late in the first quarter.

But by the end of the first, it was an all-bench unit on the floor. And once that happened, the Clippers started on a 16-0 run that lasted until early in the second quarter.

“If they can defend like that, with their ability to get down to the paint and score, then we’ll be tough to deal with,” Rivers said.

Speights said the reserves have “got the bond working,” and for a group that’s never been together on the court in a regular season game, those pre-practice sessions played a part.

“All those little things help the process,” Speights said. “We came out today and showed we’ve got a deep team. We’re going to be dangerous this year because of the depth we have.”

Rivers said during the preseason he planned on using mostly a 10-man rotation once the real season began, despite the bevy of new backups at his disposal. He stuck to that word Thursday, using only Speights, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Raymond Felton and Wesley Johnson off the bench.

It worked out, as four of the five backups who entered the game finished the night plus-17 or better.

“It’s rare where you win a game where your starters are all in the minus and your bench is all in the plus,” Doc Rivers said. “That was just phenomenal. Mo in the second half defensively, Austin all game kept popping balls loose, and we get layups from it. Those are the plays. It’s rare you win a game when you shoot 40 percent on the road.”

Crawford and Austin Rivers each played 26 minutes, with both players also getting meaningful minutes with the starters down the stretch. Austin caught fire late in the third, helping make sure the Clippers would go to the fourth quarter tied after a 33-point third for the Blazers. Crawford, in addition to his 15 points, added three rebounds, an assist and four steals.

Raymond Felton also added a steal with his four points and two assists.

“Everybody just kind of got their hands dirty,” Doc Rivers said. “That’s good.”

Despite all the offensive additions to the bench, it was the backups’ work on the other end with their defense that made the greatest impact and put the Clippers in control for most of the night until the starters got going early in the fourth.

Blake Griffin was active at both ends, finishing with 27 points, 13 rebounds and three steals. Chris Paul also added 27 points, helping lead the charge late in a contentious game between two teams that don't love each other, given recent history. </P

But as J.J. Redick said, it was the backups that turned the game around, allowing the starters to be in that position to finish it off.

“I think it was five stops in a row to start the second quarter with that second unit, and they got the lead because of the defense,” Redick said. “At the end of the game, it was sort of the same formula for us.”

Crawford said coming into the night he was curious how the backups would look together, and he knows there will be ups and downs throughout the year as they get used to one another.

If they continue to defend the way they did Thursday, it'll be a lot more of the former than the latter.

“They hung their hat on defense tonight,” said Blake Griffin. “I thought that was great.”