Chris Paul dashed down the floor ahead of the defense, collected an outlet pass, took a glance over his shoulder to check the defender closing in fast and dunked nonchalantly.
The act of Paul dunking might have been casual to him, but it was anything but to the Los Angeles Clippers bench. DeAndre Jordan became so animated, he had to be restrained by teammate Ronnie Turiaf, because despite Paul’s impressive dribbling and passing skills, slam-dunking has never been considered a major part of his repertoire.
Paul is not the only player doing things most Clippers observers have not seen before. Two years ago, it was the emphatic emergence of Blake Griffin. Last year it was Paul’s electrifying arrival. This year it may be a bench that packs the offensive punch to carry the Clips into title contention, led by a player who heats up so fast, he even makes a microwave look like a slow-cooker.
In his first season in Los Angeles, Jamal Crawford is back to doing Jamal Crawford things. The former NBA Sixth Man of the Year leads the team in scoring, and he is doing so in bunches. Crawford’s 19.7 points per game entering Wednesday were coming in barely 28 minutes and less than 13 shots per game. No other player averaging at least 19 points per game plays less than 32 minutes a night, and only Dwight Howard takes fewer shots. Crawford is the easy choice to the sixth man award so far, and that explosive scoring presence off the bench is an element the Clippers did not enjoy last season — and they had a pretty good sixth man then, too.
Mo Williams was a starting-caliber guard coming off the bench for L.A. in 2011-12. He started 81 games alongside LeBron James on the Cleveland squad that reached the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals and has resumed his starting role this season in Utah. But in comparable minutes to the ones Crawford is getting now, Williams scored just 13.2 points per game and was no more than the fourth-leading scorer on the team. The Clippers had no trouble putting the ball in the basket and finished the season ranked fourth in the league in offensive efficiency.
Still, there was a feeling that they could be better. Whether due to the limitations of Jordan’s evolving offensive game or mismanagement by coach Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers had a tendency to stall at least once per half. That was how they fell behind the Grizzlies by 27 points in the first place in their rousing comeback victory in Game 1 of the playoffs. As effective as the combination of Paul and Griffin — or Paul and Jordan — was, the Clippers relied on it a little too heavily. A well-coached team like the Spurs were capable of snuffing out such a predictable attack, which is exactly what the Spurs did in sweeping the Clippers out of the second round of the playoffs.
So coming into this season, in a way the Clippers needed to become less disciplined. They did the opposite by bringing back Chauncey Billups and signing Grant Hill, neither of whom has suited up this season, to provide a steadying presence in a young locker room. But adding Crawford, who opted out of a $5.2 deal with the Trail Blazers, may have been this summer’s masterstroke.
In 13 NBA seasons, Crawford has been the king of the broken play — namely because he is usually the one breaking them. If the Bulls, Knicks, Warriors or Hawks ever ran a play for him, it was well-hidden in a shroud of chaos. He seemed stifled under Nate McMillan last season in Portland.
Either Del Negro has made no attempt to rein in Crawford, or he has and Crawford has effectively ignored him. Well before Paul’s jam, the Clippers bench got a lot of practice in incredulous-looking celebrations thanks to Crawford’s slick dribbling against the likes of Ray Allen and Nando de Colo. Those moves were more than just empty highlights in Lob City, however. If it can be said that alley-oops are monotonous, then Crawford’s free-wheeling has opened up the Clippers offense. It may not be what purists seek, but it has made L.A. that much more difficult to defend.
As a result, the Clippers play faster and more aggressive than they did even last season. With Crawford and Eric Bledsoe (himself averaging double figures as a reserve) pushing the ball with the second unit, the Clippers are getting a full four more possessions per game this season. In a faster, more perimeter-centered game, those extra possessions could be the difference between the fifth seed — which the Clippers earned last year — and the top-three seed that comes with a Pacific Division title, which they are in prime position to win this year.
Paul may be the best executor of the pick-and-roll around and Griffin’s offensive game may be growing, but even the most effective offensive attack needs a change of pace once in a while. Crawford has not only changed the pace. He also may have changed the expectations for the franchise long known as Los Angeles’ “other” team.” And that is something few people have seen before.
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