LOS ANGELES — From the beginning, the Clippers knew they had an experienced group of reserves — players who knew what to do with their limited minutes on the court.
They had Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford and Ronny Turiaf and Lamar Odom, and they figured all of them, plus burgeoning star Eric Bledsoe, would be capable enough to give the team a boost of energy and important offensive production when the starters rested.
But this? Who would have guessed the Clippers’ bench would be this good this early?
Answer: No one. The Clippers knew they had a good bench that would develop into a helpful unit as the season developed, but as they proved again Sunday afternoon in an 89-76 victory over the Atlanta Hawks at Staples Center, they are already forming into a cohesive group.
“With each game we get more confidence because everybody understands their role out there,” Crawford said. “Bledsoe runs the show, Ronny and Ryan (Hollins) do all the dirty work, Matt’s guarding everybody, and my job is to score and try to make plays. We all understand that, and we all try to be successful in our roles.”
It’s working. The Clippers are 5-2 this season and picked up their third win in a row on a day when they came out sluggish and suffered a few defensive lapses. But in one key stretch at the end of the third quarter and the first 8 minutes, 12 seconds of the fourth, they chased the Hawks with a 20-5 run that gave them a 20-point lead.
There is still a lot of season left, but the Clippers are looking more and more like a team that is taking a big step forward. Their starting unit is strong and their bench could be the deepest group of reserves in the league.
“The thing about those guys is that they know who they are in this league,” said Paul, who had 15 points and eight assists. “That’s the key to everything. They know who they are. They’re not going to try and do anything outside of themselves. They know what to do; they know what it takes.”
The reserves scored 35 points and had as many rebounds as the starters (19). Because of the sustained infusion of energy they brought into the game, no starter was needed to play more than 32 minutes. During the Clippers’ decisive spurt, Bledsoe had eight points and Crawford and Barnes six apiece.
“A lot of these guys could be starting on any team in the NBA,” forward Blake Griffin said. “I don’t like to call them the second team because there is not much of a drop off when they come into the game. It’s unbelievable how they come into games and they put the pressure on teams and increase the lead.
“We want to reward them for that, and we don’t want anyone to think of them as the second team because we are all on the same level we are all one team.” They’ve earned it. Although players like Barnes and Crawford have made more than a few pit stops in the NBA, they’ve seemed to find a place with the Clippers, who have found specific roles for them.
“We know we have a lot of talent, and we continue to put it together,” said Barnes, who contributed 10 points and seven rebounds. “Our starters were a little down in energy tonight, and I think our bench came out and did a good job picking the tempo up and creating turnovers and giving our starters a chance to rest.”
But as Paul said, the season is just starting. The Clippers so far have benefited from a schedule that is keeping them home for seven of their first nine games, but the NBA champion Miami Heat are coming to town Wednesday night, and next week the Clips play four road games in a span of six nights.
They’ll surely be tested before too long, but for now, they look like the real thing. If nothing else, their chemistry seems strong.
“We’ve still got a ways to go,” Paul said. “I think it’s going to come with more practice and game situations. I couldn’t ask more from our team right now. We’re playing hard, we’re playing together. Like we always say, adversity is going to come. We just have to be ready to adjust.”