Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 3/15/12
LOS ANGELES So often, as the Clippers have slumped in recent weeks, they have appeared listless and lethargic, looking and acting like victims of this grinding, condensed NBA season. But in one sequence late Wednesday night, there was no such lackluster body language. Not when Eric Bledsoe went flying out of bounds to steal the ball. Not when Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans crashed the boards to steal a rebound of a rare missed shot by Mo Williams. And most certainly not when Evans put the ball in the basket and was fouled. Martin came over to deliver several celebratory head slaps to Evans, and half the Clippers' bench mimicked the crowd and rose from their seats. They skipped to center court, waving towels and pumping fists. There was plenty for the Clippers to feel good about in their 96-82 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, but the best was the bolt of energy that was generated by their second unit. Slip-sliding in the Western Conference, having lost four of five, and eight of their last 12, the Clippers needed a boost from somewhere, as they entered the second of three back-to-back games on this homestand. "The bench gave us a huge lift," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "With this schedule, we are going to need that. We were able to keep the minutes down a little bit, which is great." That appeared less likely at the start of the fourth quarter, when Martin was called for a clear-path foul on Atlanta's Josh Smith. It sparked a five-point possession for the Hawks after Smith sank both free throws and hit a 3-pointer when the Hawks were awarded the ball out of bounds. It cut the Clippers to 74-69, the closest the Hawks had been since the second quarter. But the Clippers' second unit Bledsoe, Williams, Martin, Evans and Bobby Simmons clamped down defensively, allowing only a Tracy McGrady 3-pointer over the next five minutes. It was the only basket the Hawks made until the game's final seconds, by which time the Clippers lead had mushroomed to 16. The reserves were playing so well that Paul and Griffin, who were stationed at the scorer's table near the five-minute mark, were called back to the bench by Del Negro. "They were playing hard, had good energy and our matchups were good, so I let them go for another minute or two," Del Negro said. While Williams poured in 25 points and Evans' hustle generated chants of "Reg-gie," the catalyst for the second was Bledsoe, the hard-nosed, second-year guard from Kentucky. Bledsoe has sparked recent double-digit comebacks against San Antonio (twice) and Golden State with his relentless ball hawking, but he has had trouble earning trust and more minutes from Del Negro. Against the Hawks, Bledsoe had four steals and forced two missed layups in 14 minutes, and also sank a pair of 3-pointers in contributing 14 points, which doubled his season high. "It starts with him," Evans said. "He kind of set the tone. I love playing with him, even on the road. He brings a different dimension to the game. He's not no laid-back player." Neither was Martin, who clubbed Evans with a series of right-left combinations after his rebound basket put the Clippers ahead by 11. "You don't feel it," Evans said. "You're just happy." The Clippers happy from the start, sinking their first seven shots, and never trailing against the Hawks, who suffered a devastating loss the night before in Denver on Danilo Gallinari's late 3-pointer. The seeds for the Clippers' performance were sown earlier in the day, when the team held a lengthy 1-hour, 20-minute shootaround, about twice as long as the typical game-day workout. "We were just focused all day today," Griffin said. "We had a good shootaround this morning and that's where it starts from the time we walk into the gym to the time the game is over." Two telltale signs that the offense would be in synch were there early feeding Caron Butler, who scored 13 points, on isolation plays and Randy Foye and Mo Williams taking some of the ball-handling responsibilities from Chris Paul. Del Negro had been searching for a way to spark the Clippers out of their slump, but the compressed schedule they play 20 games in March has complicated matters. The Clippers have not had a full practice since the day they returned from the All-Star break, Del Negro preferring to give his players rest. "Yeah, you're always fighting that," Del Negro said of the urge to practice. "But also you have to find a way to keep the energy up with the schedule you're talking about. There's nothing like the physical repetition of something to ingrain it in someone and get them comfortable with a defense trap or a rotation, or a play set or timing on a flair screen. So we're at a disadvantage because this group has just been put together this season and we've got to try to make all the pieces work." On Wednesday night, the pieces worked together just fine.
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