LOS ANGELES (AP) — Blake Griffin and Chris Paul can rest a little easier when they get a breather these days. The Los Angeles Clippers have a strong group of reserves ready to pick up the slack.
Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes engineered a big fourth-quarter run to help the Clippers beat the Atlanta Hawks 89-76 on Sunday.
Griffin scored 16 points and Paul had 15 points and eight assists. But it was the backups who played a key role in the pivotal 15-1 surge in the final period.
“It’s fun to watch, and it’s exciting for our team,” Paul said. “We really feed off their energy, and it’s a huge advantage for us. Guys like Matt Barnes, Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf, they know who they are in this league. And that’s the key to everything. They’re not going to try to do anything outside of themselves or be something they’re not. And that’s why we have confidence in them.”
The Clippers’ reserves outscored their counterparts 35-32, marking the first time in five games this season the Hawks were outscored in the battle of the benches. Atlanta had a 47-28 advantage against Houston, a 47-32 margin over Oklahoma City, and entered this game with a 41.8 scoring average by the reserves.
“We come in and change the pace and bring energy,” Bledsoe said. “For the most part, we have the same defensive instincts as the starters. Everybody knows what everyone else is capable of and what we have to do. Ronny and Ryan know how to play great defense as big men. They talk and let us know when the screens are coming and when they’re not. That’s a good feeling, when you know your teammates have your back.”
Crawford, who won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award in 2010 while playing for Atlanta, had 11 points after coming in with a team-high 21.8 average — tops among the league’s reserves. Fifth-year center DeAndre Jordan, coming off the first back-to-back 20-point games of his NBA career, finished with eight points.
Josh Smith had 13 points for the Hawks, who shot 41.7 percent from the field in the opener of a four-game road trip. They also committed 22 turnovers that were converted into 24 Clippers points.
“Defense is more important than anything,” Crawford said. “Offense comes and goes, and it can muck up the game sometimes. But today we were able to get out and really get after it defensively. That was the difference in the game. That’s something we know we can do every single game, because we practice against the starters — who aren’t too shabby. So whenever you practice against a group like that, you get more confidence and it makes you better.”
Coming off consecutive victories over San Antonio and Portland, the Clippers took a 65-60 lead into the fourth. Neither team led by more than six until Barnes stole the ball from Ivan Johnson and raced down the floor for a breakaway dunk that gave Los Angeles a 70-62 lead with 10:10 remaining.
“I think we got a little careless with the basketball,” said Smith, who had a team-high five turnovers. “Whenever you give a home team momentum plays like that, it’s kind of hard to give yourself the opportunity to win in the fourth quarter.”
After Lou Williams’ short jumper at the other end, the Clippers broke it open and built an 85-65 cushion with 3:49 to play after scoring 13 straight points. During the run, Barnes converted a dunk and a layup on fast breaks after turnovers by Smith.
“It was our defense that did it for us down the stretch,” Griffin said. “I don’t remember how many stops in a row we had, but I think we had something like eight or nine. That’s the kind of defense you have to have to close out a game like that — and that was with our `second team.’ A lot of these guys could be starting on a good number of NBA teams. So it’s not much of a drop-off.”
The Hawks coughed up the ball 10 times in the final quarter while going almost 6 minutes without a field goal. To make matters worse, they missed nine of 16 free-throw attempts in the game.
“The turnovers and free-throw shooting were bad,” coach Larry Drew said. “We couldn’t make a free throw and we had 22 turnovers. I thought our guys followed our game plan for 2 quarters. But midway into the third, it was like we totally forgot what had put us in the position we were in and we abandoned it. We got sped up with the pressure, and we let the officiating bother us. We let some calls get us out of character and lost our focus and composure. We can’t play like that on the road.” NOTES: Shaquille O’Neal watched the game from a front-row seat at midcourt with his daughter Amira, but he said he wasn’t sticking around for the Lakers-Sacramento game that followed. During Thursday night’s TNT coverage of the Clippers’ game at Portland, O’Neal said he thought Jordan was the best center in the Western Conference — Dwight Howard notwithstanding. … The Clippers have two days off before hosting Miami on Wednesday night. Since moving to Los Angeles for the 1984-85 campaign, they are 18-68 against teams that won an NBA title the previous season.