Clippers getting closer to full strength

LOS ANGELES -- As Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro sat in his office last week, looking over the team’s upcoming schedule, he decided to look something up.

He was curious when his team last had a full practice. Not a shootaround or a walk-through, but an actual practice with contract and five-on-five drills.

“We haven’t practiced since Dec. 12,” Del Negro said. “We don’t have enough bodies now. We haven’t practiced since Charlotte.”

The Clippers were about midway through their 17-game winning streak when Del Negro says they last had a real practice and he’s not sure when they'll have one again. But judging by the look of the trainer’s table at the Clippers’ training facility, that day could be sooner rather than later.

Jamal Crawford, who has missed the last two games with a sore foot, is expected to be back on the court when the Clippers play the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday. Grant Hill, who has yet to play this season with bone bruises in his right knee, has returned to practice and could be back on the court by Saturday or next week. And Chauncey Billups, who has played in three games this season, is nearing a return to practice after recovering from tendinitis in his left foot, and could be back on the court by the end of the month.

“Everybody says how deep we are but we don't have a lot of players,” Del Negro said. “We're only deep when guys are healthy, and right now we're not real healthy.”

The Clippers have offered up plenty of surprises during their league-best 27-8 start to the season, but perhaps the way their second unit was able to overcome Crawford's absence in beating the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors on back-to-back nights was the most surprising.

Crawford is one of the early favorites to win the Sixth Man of the Year award this season and is averaging 16.5 points per game, second among primary bench players, and leads the league with 20-point games (13) off the bench. Most would probably single out Crawford as the Clippers' X-factor, but their ability to win without him again showed their depth.

Against the Lakers, nine Clippers scored with 30 points coming from four bench players and against the Warriors, seven players scored in double figures with Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe combining for 28 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.

“[Jamal] is obviously our scorer,” said Barnes, who is averaging a career-high 10.8 points and 5.1 rebounds off the bench this season. “But we have a very deep team and that gave other players an opportunity to get extended minutes. Willie [Green] got a chance to play a little bit more; I played a little bit more. Bledsoe played a lot. It allowed everyone to get an opportunity and it kept guys ready.”

Not surprisingly the biggest benefactor when it comes to playing time with the absence of Crawford and Billups has been Bledsoe, who has averaged 26 minutes the last two games and scored a season-high 17 points against Golden State on Saturday. It also has given Bledsoe more time to play alongside Chris Paul, something both players would like to see more of even when the Clippers are at full strength.

“It just means more minutes,” Paul said. “It gave me and Bledsoe an opportunity to play together a little bit more. When I’m in the game with Bledsoe I get more off the ball and become the scorer.”

Paul admits that he was looking to be more aggressive offensively in the last two games with Crawford out. He had 30 points, 13 assists and six rebounds against the Lakers and followed that up the next night with 27 points, nine assists and five rebounds against the Warriors. But don’t look for Paul to continue to put up those kinds of numbers when Crawford comes back this week.

“Knowing Jamal wasn’t playing, I knew I needed to score a little bit,” Paul said. “Hopefully he gets back so and I won’t have to do that anymore.”