LOS ANGELES Late Saturday morning, Phoenix Suns coach Alvin Gentry stood outside the visiting team's locker room at Staples Center and declared the Clippers' reserves the best bench in the NBA.
"I don't think it's even close," he said.
By Saturday afternoon, Gentry and the Suns saw it firsthand. They were mowed down by a third-quarter rout at the hands of the Clippers bench, which turned a two-point lead into an 18-point win, 117-99.
Until coach Vinny Del Negro made his substitutions near the end of the third quarter, the Clippers were sputtering, unable to pull away on offense and struggling on defense. But his reserve players Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf brought a sense of energy and urgency into the game.
"We looked at each other and we said, 'Let's go,' " Turiaf said. " 'It's time to go have some fun.' "
And they did. The Clippers outscored the Suns 25-10 in the first eight minutes of the quarter to help the team to its fifth consecutive victory, one short of matching its season-best win streak.
Chris Paul had 16 points and 11 assists, and Blake Griffin added 24 points, eight rebounds, four assists and a career-high four steals. But the bench scored 56 points and picked off 23 rebounds. Crawford had 21 points, Barnes finished with 13 and eight rebounds and Odom totaled eight points, eight rebounds and three assists.
"Thank the bench because the starters were struggling," Del Negro said. "They got us off to a bad start again. I was disappointed with that. I didn't think our energy was good."
The Clippers trailed by three at the end of one quarter and were behind by as many as eight points in the second, and if there was a sense they were on their way to losing to another inferior team, it was justified.
The Suns came to Staples lugging a five-game losing streak, but they've also played an NBA-high six games decided by three points or less. Pushovers, they're not.
Del Negro blamed his team's defensive inefficiency, pointing to the 57 points the Clippers allowed in the first half and a lack of intensity when the Suns had the ball.
Was this something he would discuss with his team, someone asked.
"I've already said it," he answered.
"You have to point out the obvious," he added. "They know it. Talking about it is great, but you have to do it. You have to perform."
That was left to the bench, which started the fourth quarter with an 85-83 lead. In a span of 3 minutes, though, the Clippers stretched it to nine: Crawford sank a 19-footer, then, after the Suns' Wesley Johnson scored, Crawford made a three-point basket and a running bank shot followed by a Bledsoe dunk.
"Usually when you go to the bench, the other team thinks it can make a run," Barnes said. "But we try to come out and maintain the lead or increase the lead. So there's no letup when we go to our bench."
Even Odom, who needed additional time to adjust after arriving in camp overweight and injured, is beginning to play a larger role. He played 20 minutes, 36 seconds after getting almost 24 minutes Wednesday night against Dallas.
"That's the strength of our team," Odom said of the bench. "When we get contributions like that off the bench, it's always helpful. And then we have different lineups where we can change the momentum or play any style. We've got a guy who can get 20 a game in Jamal. Eric changes speed, makes plays. Defensively we stayed solid, got in the passing lines, denied them the ball, didn't give up any offensive rebounds and that helped."
The Clippers now face a back-to-back challenge Sunday against the Toronto Raptors in consecutive 12:30 p.m. starting times. This season, the Clippers are 1-2 in the second game of back-to-backs.
But if they struggle at the start, they know there's help on the way.
"We want to put it away early," Griffin said, "but with the way our team is put together, our second team is just as capable coming in and putting that lead on teams."