LOS ANGELES — Stop us if you’ve heard this one before . . .
It’s a familiar story with a familiar finish, one in which the Clippers starters yield to their bench in a tight game and spend the fourth quarter acting as cheerleaders from their courtside seats.
In their first 20 games of the season, the Clippers have become used to this script. It has helped them to a 14-6 record and six consecutive victories after Sunday’s 102-83 win over the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center. Get used to it.
Even with such NBA luminaries as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Clippers don’t lose much when they call on their reserves. In fact, when their starters have difficulty on defense or are unable to pull away in the second half, coach Vinny Del Negro has no trouble calling on his bench.
Had Matt Barnes not been ejected for a brief skirmish with Raptors guard John Lucas with 1 minute, 36 seconds left in the game, the Clippers would have enjoyed a stretch in which their starters did not play the fourth quarter in four of five games.
Sunday, no starter played more than 30 minutes; only backup guard Jamal Crawford played more than 32.
“As long as I’ve been in this league, through 20 games I’ve never played this least amount of minutes,” Paul said. “I should have no arguments about being tired. I want to play, but I’m also enjoying cheering on the guys out there playing. We like to see each other succeed.”
The routine against Toronto was almost identical to Saturday’s 117-99 win over the Phoenix Suns, a game in which the Clippers led by two before their bench outscored the Suns 32-16 in the final period.
Sunday, the Clippers took a four-point lead into the fourth against a Toronto team that had dropped nine in a row on the road and brought in a 4-16 record.
But with Barnes, Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf on the court, they squashed the Raptors over an 8-1/2 minute stretch, blowing out a 21-1 run that turned a two-point lead into a 22-point rout.
“It was a mirror image of last night’s game,” Crawford said. “We had a two-point lead going into the fourth (on Saturday) and we got some stops, and whenever we get stops, that fuels our offense.”
Bledsoe celebrated his 23rd birthday by scoring 10 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter on 4-of-4 shooting in the period. Crawford was just 4 of 14 from the floor and saw his streak of consecutive free throws made end at 58, but he still scored 16.
Crawford leads the league in fourth-quarter scoring at 8.2 points and is first in bench scoring at 17.9 points, but the Clippers’ success is a result of each reserve knowing his role and playing it well.
Relying on his bench is a luxury right now for Del Negro, who knows it could pay dividends later in the season — and postseason perhaps — when his starters have something in reserve.
“It’s not always going to be like that,” Del Negro said. “I think the bench has performed well and they deserve to be out there. But that’s not always going to be the case, and everyone’s got to be ready to play.”
The win streak matches the Clippers’ longest of the season, but the first one ended when they went on the road and lost three in a row after opening with a rousing victory in San Antonio. On Tuesday, they begin another four-game road stretch, this one with stops in Chicago, Charlotte, Milwaukee and Detroit.
Like last time, they’ll have momentum on their side. But they’ll also have a collection of reserves to carry them, assuming they can continue on the road what they’ve been doing at home.
“They have one of the top benches in the league,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. “Crawford coming off the bench, he can start for almost any team in the NBA. And then when Crawford gets going, Turiaf and his energy can be a threat. Also, Bledsoe can start for a lot of teams in the NBA.
“They have a solid bench. Once they get a rhythm going up and down and get their defense turned up, they can cause problems.”
For now, it’s working. And the Clippers are riding it as far as it takes them.