When Eric Bledsoe comes in for Chris Paul, he has been told to push the ball and look for his shot.
LOS ANGELES -- The preseason is just that. It’s a collection of eight exhibition games before Halloween that will long be forgotten by the time November and the regular season rolls around.
The one redeeming quality about the preseason is it provides a good indication of a team’s depth as bench players normally get to play longer minutes and showcase their skills late in games.
And when it comes to depth, there may not be two more polar opposite teams in the league right now than the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers.
While the Lakers are 0-6 and were blown out by an average of 23 points in their first four games, the Clippers are 3-1 since Chris Paul returned to the starting lineup after offseason thumb surgery.
The Clippers’ bench could be one of the best in the league, highlighted by a pair of former Sixth Man of the Year award winners. The Lakers’ bench could be one of the worst, at least among the contenders, highlighted by Jordan Hill, who played in just 19 regular-season and playoff games for the Lakers last season.
On Monday night, the Clippers’ second unit showed what it was capable of when it came into the game with the Clippers holding a nine-point lead late in the first quarter against the Golden State Warriors. By the end of the second unit’s run before halftime, the Clippers’ lead had ballooned to 18 points.
The goal of the Clippers’ second unit this season isn’t simply to sustain leads but to build on them by changing the tempo of the game. When Eric Bledsoe comes in for Paul, he has been told to push the ball and look for his shot on the offensive end along with Jamal Crawford.
“It’s exciting to watch him play,” Paul said. “I’m E.B.’s biggest fan. I’m always on him about being aggressive. He’s fast. He’s faster than I was at my fastest point. It’s amazing to see him play with that speed and now he has that confidence. Our one-two punch is amazing. When I come out of the game, it’s not a back-up coming into the game, that’s a starter in this league coming into the game.”
Bledsoe, Matt Barnes, Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf all recorded at least two field goals and four points in the first half Monday night while Crawford, the best offensive option off the bench, went 1-of-4 from the field. Through three quarters the Clippers led by as many as 28 points and the Clippers’ bench was outscoring the Warriors’ bench 23-10.
As great as the Clippers' second unit has looked recently, it has been without Lamar Odom and Grant Hill since returning from an eight-day trip to China as both players continue to deal with bruised knees. Hill and Odom are expected to be back for the start of the regular season. Chauncey Billups, who is recovering from a torn Achilles tendon, is expected to be back sometime in November or December.
“We have like a second-and-a-half unit,” Barnes said. “We really have a very deep team and once we get everybody healthy and at full steam at practice, it's going to be great.”
The biggest offseason splashes for the Clippers came early in the signing period as they traded for Odom and signed Crawford and Hill and picked up Hollins, Turiaf and Willie Green. The signing of Barnes was the last move the team made before the start of training camp but has been paying the biggest dividends in the preseason.
Barnes had a game-high 22 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in the Clippers’ loss to Utah last week and had 11 points, six rebounds and two steals in a win over the Miami Heat in China. He also has made presence felt as an enforcer when he nearly got into a fight with Jazz forward DeMarre Carroll when Carroll tried to get in Barnes’ face after a hard foul.
“I talked to the whole team that we fear nobody,” Barnes said. “Teams need to fear us because of our depth and talent. We can't be awed by anybody. We can't allow our guys to get beat up. We just have to clean all that up.”
While Lakers coach Mike Brown has routinely said he doesn’t care if the Lakers win or lose games in the preseason, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said he wants to win anytime they’re keeping score and ripped into his team in the fourth quarter Monday night for a sloppy finish even though they won by 17 points.
“You get paid to play and you get paid to win, I don’t care if it’s exhibition or not, you have to compete,” Del Negro said. “If you’re not willing to compete and put it out there, you’re not a competitive person and those are not the type of people I want around here. ... I understand it’s an exhibition game but when you play your minutes, play the right way so we can get better. If you don’t want to, you can come sit with me.”