LOS ANGELES -- The theme reverberating from the Los Angeles Clippers locker room after their 110-98 loss to the Toronto Raptors was that the team was exhausted after a brutal stretch of seven games in 11 days.
“It felt like we ran out of gas before the game started,” Chris Paul said.
“I thought that in the first half we were in trouble,” coach Doc Rivers echoed. “I thought we were exhausted. Toronto played great, so we have to give them some credit.”
With their sixth loss in 10 games, the Clippers are probably the most difficult team to gauge among the West’s playoff hopefuls. Are they still the squad that was the clear-cut third, if not second-best, team in the West the past season? Or, as their play this season suggests, have they fallen behind the rest of the pack, somewhere into the middle or lower end of the playoff race?
It’s difficult to suss out what is legitimate and what is just noise before the turn of the calendar year, but one thing is clear through 31 games: The Clippers’ bench isn’t as deep or productive as last season’s, and this is affecting their ability to win close games against good teams.
When teams are tired and banged up, depth becomes invaluable. If the second unit can come in and maintain or even extend the lead the starters build -- the Clippers’ starting lineup has a net rating of +15.2 -- the first unit can earn considerable rest, which pays off when fatigue kicks in during the fourth quarter.
This season’s bench is generally hit-or-miss, though, and when they’re struggling, the scoreboard can get ugly, as it did Saturday afternoon.
Though three quarters, the Clippers trailed by two points and were playing the Raptors relatively even, save for the turnover disparity (12 to 7). At the beginning of the fourth, Rivers trotted out an all-bench unit of Jordan Farmar, Jamal Crawford, Reggie Bullock, Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis, and all hell broke loose.
Toronto went on a 13-2 run, sparked by reserves Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson, to create a 93-80 advantage, and that was it. The Raptors maintained the double-digit spread for the rest of the way, even after the Clippers’ starters began trickling back in.
“We got out of our principles defensively,” Davis said of the bench’s fourth-quarter play. “If we want to beat good teams, we have to keep it together and make sure we stick together and do the necessary things to win the ball game.”
Paul added: “It was tough. Vasquez started making 3s. They were getting lobs and dunks. [Fatigue] caught up with us.”
The Clippers have a built-in excuse for their bench’s recent play, as reserve center Spencer Hawes has missed the past 10 games. His absence has thrown the rotation out of whack, shifted Davis and Turkoglu into larger roles and moved Bullock back into the rotation -- adjustments that haven’t worked.
“It is tough anytime you are losing or missing a piece,” Blake Griffin said. “That changes things when you are used to a set group of guys. ... I would not say it’s the bench and the first group or the first group and the bench -- it’s us. We need to be better as a team.”
That being said, it’s not as if the bench has been amazing with Hawes. Almost every lineup that featured three or more bench players and played more than 20 minutes had a positive net rating last season; this season, about half of the same type of lineups have negative net ratings. Even worse, every prominent bench player has a negative plus-minus.
Far too often, the second unit’s offense devolves into handing Crawford the ball at the top of the key and just standing around and watching him iso. That can work at times, but smart defenses will force the ball out of Crawford’s hands and/or make him take tougher shots.
There aren’t many other options. Farmar, the biggest individual disappoint this season, has struggled to run the offense and foster good looks for his teammates. In 29 games, he has scored in double-digits just four times and had only five games with three or more assists.
Davis has been more involved with Hawes out, but most of his points come off dives to the rim and offensive rebounds -- opportunities created by others. Turkoglu and Bullock are nothing more than spot-up shooters at this point.
That’s their productive side of the floor. Defensively, things are even worse.
Besides Davis, there isn’t an average defender in the bunch, and the group hemorrhages points. According to NBA.com/Stats, the lineup that started the fourth has a -22.2 net rating and is allowing 122.0 points per 100 possessions -- the worst mark in the league by a mile.
“Doc is going to figure out the rotation and see what we can do to help our team -- especially giving the big guys rest because they’re playing a lot of minutes,” Davis said.
With the loss, the Clippers moved to 0-4 against the East’s top-four seeds and just 7-9 against current playoff teams in both conferences (5-4 vs. the West). On most nights, the opponent’s bench outplays the Clippers'. This perturbing trend continued Saturday.
“It’s hard to be a good team,” Davis said. “We have to realize that if we want to go far in the postseason, we have to beat good teams.”
More than one-third of the way into the season, as the losses against good teams pile up, it’s becoming harder and harder to justify the team’s standing among perceived contenders.
Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com and NBA.com/Stats.