Do blowout victories lead to big nights for a team’s bench or does a big night for a team’s bench lead to blowout victories?
Yes. And vice versa.
Something like that, anyway, after the team with arguably the NBA’s best unit of reserves took on and handily beat the team that used to arguably have the best backups.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been getting great production from their bench, led by veteran addition Jamal Crawford. Crawford (at 20.7 ppg) isn’t just the Clippers’ leading scorer so far this season, he ranks ninth overall in the NBA. He’s the only one of the top 26 on that list who is averaging fewer than 30 minutes nightly – in fact, Crawford hasn’t started a single game.
The 13-year veteran is off to his best start ever – he’s averaging 26.5 points per 36 minutes, 5.6 points more than his previous best. Crawford scored 22 minutes in 27:22 Saturday, and he had plenty of help from benchmates Matt Barnes (13) and Eric Bledsoe (10) in L.A.’s 101-80 victory over Chicago.
Ahem, yes, that Chicago. One of the Bulls’ distinctive advantages the past two seasons was a second unit unrivaled in the NBA for total impact at both ends of the floor. While guys such as Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson gave their club reliable scoring weapons, defenders such as Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer and Taj Gibson made coach Tom Thibodeau smile at the havoc they wreaked on the other clubs’ best-laid plays.
Except that now, only Gibson remains from the guts of that “bench mob.” Gibson’s production has been down so far, possibly affected by contract-extension uncertainty that wasn’t resolved until the Halloween deadline. Jimmy Butler hasn’t made the second-year step as a shooter that was supposed to make Brewer expendable. The others were shed in Bulls management’s adherence to fiscal responsibility, i.e., minimizing luxury-tax liability.
So the Bulls swapped out valuable parts as if they were interchangeable cogs, and the helpful contributions in reserve now are supposed to come from Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmanovic and Marquis Teague.
Only they’re not. Catch a glimpse of the gamebook from this one: Through three quarters at Staples Center, the Clippers had a 17-point lead but a 42-8 bench scoring edge. The Bulls’ backups, in a total of about 33 minutes, were a frosty 2-of-12. They were part of the problem defensively in the Clips’ 35-point second quarter, too.
A team that has no margin for error, with its superstar point guard still out indefinitely, lately has been getting next-to-nothing – nothing reliable, anyway – from its used-to-be strength.
As ESPNChicago.com’s Nick Friedell reported in his West Coast dispatch:
Aside from Derrick Rose’s absence, the Bulls’ single biggest issue is the fact that their new Bench Mob isn’t playing nearly as well as their old one did.
“Our second unit comes in, we always try and take advantage,” Crawford said. “We feel like we’re among the best second units in the league and every night we get an opportunity to prove it. So we want to support our starters and once we get everybody together we feel like we’ll be among the best teams in the league.”
That’s exactly what Taj Gibson and his old Bench Mob teammates used to say after games. They would always find a way to extend a lead or keep it at bay until the starters returned. That’s not the case anymore. Thibodeau struggles to find consistency from his new group on a night to night basis. When they play higher quality opponents and the starters don’t bring the right intensity — the Bulls are in trouble.
Crawford, at 32, might not be able to maintain his current pace. Then again, the Clippers have Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups potentially in reserve for their reserves, so there is cavalry for the cavalry. The Bulls used to have that kind of deep depth, but right now all they have is Radmanovic playing the Brian Scalabrine role, and of course less lovably.