How far the Clippers go may hinge largely on the depth of their bench

LOS ANGELES -- While Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan left the Los Angeles Clippers' locker room Wednesday night one by one to answer questions from a podium set up in a conference room, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Cole Aldrich and Jeff Green stayed behind and took turns leaning against a table, addressing a handful of reporters.

The Clippers' second unit doesn't attract nearly the same amount of attention as the team's starters, but if their playoff run this season extends further than anyone outside their locker room thinks it can, this revamped group will be a big reason why.

Last season Doc Rivers had to constantly defend his non-existent bench that basically consisted of Crawford and Austin Rivers. He would occasionally find some time for Glen "Big Baby" Davis and brushed the cobwebs off of Spencer Hawes' man bun, but it was essentially a two-man bench that provided streaky scoring in the backcourt but not much else.

Fast forward one year and Rivers is doing something he never thought he would do during the playoffs. He's playing his entire five-man second unit during key stretches of the game. Not only are the Clippers keeping their lead in those situations, they're extending it.

In the first half, the second unit turned a three-point advantage into a 15-point lead and in the fourth quarter they took a six-point lead and turned the game into a blowout.

In the Clippers' 102-81 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday to take a 2-0 lead in their first-round series, Rivers, Crawford, Aldrich, Green and Wesley Johnson each had at least a plus-15 and played at least 12 minutes.

"We got a lot of help this season," said Austin Rivers, who had nine points. "It went from just being Jamal out there to a team. Cole has been f---ing unbelievable on both ends. His defense has been incredible. Jeff Green has been great and he's another guy that can score and defend multiple positions. Wes spreads the floor for us and can shoot. We feel we have a full second unit and we feel like we can be the best."

There was a feeling the Clippers would have a good second unit coming into this season, but the reasons for that optimism aren't exactly why the group has been flourishing.

In the offseason, the Clippers traded for Lance Stephenson and signed Josh Smith. They also inked Paul Pierce and Pablo Prigioni. The Clippers had seemingly finally added some pieces to their bench but those pieces never quite fit. Stephenson and Smith never seemed comfortable with their roles and were dealt by the trade deadline. Pierce and Prigioni are both great locker room guys but are also both 38 and potentially playing their last games in the NBA.

Pierce didn't even enter Wednesday's game after being a nonfactor in Game 1 and Prigioni has picked up only a couple of minutes of mop-up duty in both contests.

"I think sometimes you have to take a step back to go forward," Crawford said. "Those guys [Smith and Stephenson] are talented players and they're both on playoff teams now and are key parts to their teams, but I just think for whatever reason as a group we didn't take off like we thought we would. We had five talented guys but as group we didn't really work well together but give credit to Doc. He caught it early and on Christmas night he told me I needed to be more aggressive again and we started putting pieces around that and it fit better."

In the end, the Clippers' second unit began to come together when the Clippers started to play Aldrich more regularly right before Christmas and Crawford began to be more aggressive after Christmas, culminating in a record third NBA Sixth Man of the Year award.

Aldrich endeared himself to his teams even when he wasn't playing by arriving at the practice facility at 8:30 every morning to go on the treadmill and lift weights and getting to the arena four hours before games to get work in. Rivers challenged him to lose weight before the season and he said he has lost 25 pounds since the start of the season.

"Maybe we should write down the Cole diet, because I don't know what he did," Rivers said. "But, he really worked his butt off."

Against the Blazers on Wednesday, Aldrich had 8 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks in only 12 minutes as the Clippers' reserves outscored the Blazers' reserves by 33 points.

"They just changed the game for us," Rivers said. "They were spectacular tonight. I thought on both ends I thought they saved the game for us tonight. Our starters were up and down a little bit, and I thought we were sloppy in a lot of ways, but I thought our bench saved us. They came in and opened the floor and just played and got ball movement, but then on the other end I thought they got a ton of stops and scores. So that was huge for us. There are going to be nights like that in the playoffs where starters may need a lift, and tonight was one of those nights."

The confidence for this second unit has been growing during the course of the season but took a major leap before the start of the playoffs when Rivers began to rest his starters and allowed his bench to play the entire game. Without their starters, the Clippers nearly beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road as Crawford and Rivers combined for 64 points.

"We were going up against a third-seeded playoff team and we took their starters down to the wire and we had a chance to win the game," Crawford said. "I think for us that validated and cemented what we already knew as a group, we feel like we're the best bench in the league."