NBA Sunday: The League’s Deepest Team?
Among the top teams in bench scoring all season long, the Los Angeles Clippers reserve core has been a huge facet of what is turning out to be the most decorated season in franchise history.
The Clippers are on the verge of winning 50 games and notching a division title for the first time in franchise history featuring arguably the most talented roster top-to-bottom in the NBA. The stars of the show in LA are All-Stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul but the bench has been the difference in making the Clippers a legit contender this season.
Checking their ego’s at the door, LA’s stellar bench has excelled all season long.
“We all understand the bigger picture,” Sixth-man Jamal Crawford told HOOPSWORLD. “I think a lot of us have started on different teams or whatever, but when you’re trying to win championships, you do what’s asked of you. For us, we want our bench just as strong as any bench in the league, and when our starters come out of the game, we have confidence that we’ll increase the score and we definitely won’t let the score go down from where it was, and those guys get more rest, and if they’re fresher, we’ll be a better team.”
It wasn’t long after the Clippers first practiced together that this team knew it had something special brewing – from the starting five down to the 12th man at the end of the bench.
“Honestly, we noticed it in the summer,” Crawford said. “When we came in for summer workouts, just sitting around in the training room, just sitting around, and then Grant [Hill] walks in, Chris walks in, then Blake walks in, Willie [Green] walks in, then Lamar [Odom], Matt [Barnes], Caron [Butler], and it’s like, ‘We’re on the same team? Like, really?’ So we just noticed we have a special group, a group that has much talent as much as we’ve all been around at the same time.”
Crawford is the second-highest NBA scorer off of the bench this season averaging 16.6 points per contest and is the Clippers’ third-leading scorer behind only Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. While he may have found a starting job if he had signed elsewhere over the summer, Crawford believes in the foundation being built with the Clippers.
“Yeah, I hope so,” Crawford says of his willingness to put his ego aside and take a reserve role. “I hope so, for sure because I’m always looking at the big picture. And for us, I’m further along in my career, so I don’t feel like I have to start. I don’t have the ego. I feel like I can be an important piece whether I start or come off the bench, and I think other guys around the league are starting to see that, starting to see the value of that. This is a well-balanced team. If you look at OKC last year, Harden was not as important as Westbrook and Durant, but he was right there underneath those guys, and that definitely plays a part, and for me, I’m very comfortable with it and just trying to do my job.”
Crawford’s not alone with that team-first mentality as across this Clippers team with each player off the bench realizing they play a huge role in LA’s success.
“Guys are sacrificing some minutes here and there,” Head coach Vinny Del Negro said. “Like I’ve said from day one, we have good balance on our roster. Matt Barnes has had a very good year for us; Lamar Odom has rebounded the ball well, Eric Bledsoe continues to develop, so that second group has excelled without question. Jamal has had a consistent year as he’s had and he’s been a huge catalyst for us in a lot of games. He plays starter minutes basically, Jamal, but he’s been fantastic for us. Everyone’s chipped in and made plays when we’ve had to. We’ve weathered injuries throughout the season, and that’s just a part of a long NBA season.”
Injuries have decimated the Clippers as of late and the team’s 7-7 record in the month of March reflects that fact. Still, with bench players stepping up with starters on the shelf, this team understands just how key the reserve core has been to this team’s 49-25 overall record this season.
“The bench has been very crucial.” All-Star point guard Chris Paul said. “Without our bench, we don’t have the record that we have right now because we’ve all had our spurts. Some nights the starters carry us, some nights the bench carries us but we’re at our best when both units contribute.”
The Clippers are hoping to get healthy and peak at the right time with just eight games on tap for the remainder of the season. Featuring a second-team that could likely give many starting five’s around the NBA fits, LA is a team on the short list of contenders to make it out of the brutal Western Conference this postseason.
Tobias Harris Carving Out Niche in Orlando
What a whirlwind season it’s been for the 20-year old Harris. After struggling to find much time on the court in Milwaukee for the Bucks, Harris has been lighting it up in a much larger role for the Orlando Magic. Harris is averaging a double-double with 20 points per game to go along with 10 rebounds over the last five games while playing more than 40 minutes per in Orlando. A key return for the Magic in a trade headlined by J.J. Reddick at the deadline, Harris has averaged 16 points and eight rebounds per since heading to Orlando. HOOPSWORLD caught up with Harris recently to find out how it feels to be unleashed in Orlando:
J.R. Smith Carrying Surging Knicks
The New York Knicks are riding high on a seven-game winning streak heading into action this Easter Sunday and the team’s most explosive player off of the bench has been the main culprit. Keying the team’s surge, Smith has averaged nearly 26.5 points per game while shooting better than 53 percent from the field. Smith has scored at least 30 points in each of the Knicks’ last three contests and Carmelo Anthony believes NY’s sixth man is playing the best basketball of his career.
“I’ve never [seen him play] the way he’s playing right now,” Anthony told ESPN New York’s Jared Zwerling. “I’ve seen him have his spurts, have his runs before, have some outstanding games, but the way he has it locked in right now, his focus level I haven’t seen that in a long time.
“He’s focused. He’s dialed in, he’s locked in,” Anthony said. “He’s playing extremely well right now and his confidence is sky high. We’re following his lead right now.”
Always a dangerous weapon off of the bench that can bury a team by putting up points in a hurry from behind the arc, Smith has taken a different approach during the Knicks spurt. After jacking up an average of 5.6 threes per contest this season, Smith has dwindled that number to just four per during the streak.
Instead of settling for jumpers from deep, Smith has made a concerted effort to get to the basket and it’s paid dividends for the Knicks.
“I’m making it a conscious effort to attack the basket, getting to the free throw line,” Smith said. “I’m going to keep going to the basket, that’s for sure, so [teams are] going to have to figure that out.Playing with Melo, it’s so hard to defend him and teams are really going in with the majority mindset of how to defend him, and it just so happens I’ve got it going.”
Even in the midst of a season in which we’ve seen the HEAT win 27 straight games, a seven-game push heading into April is nothing to sneeze at. The Knicks are statistically the oldest team in the NBA averaging 31.3-years of age among them but the veteran team looks to be peaking the right time to close the season. The Knicks are blowing out opponents by an average of 11 points per game during the spurt and will look to keep it going at Madison Square Garden tonight against the Boston Celtics.
With the Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner Smith keying NY’s resurgence, the Knicks find themselves just a half game back of the Indiana Pacers in pursuit of the second seed in the Eastern Conference.