Going into Wednesday night's home game against the Atlanta Hawks, the Los Angeles Clippers had lost four of five and eight of their last 12. They were winless in the first two games of a season-long six-game home stand, and had lost five of their last seven at home. All of the energy and excitement that had accompanied the team through the first two months of the season had seemingly melted away. The dreaded Lakers had overtaken them in the Pacific Division standings, and they were beginning to sink in the Western Conference standings, as well. In short, they needed to win a basketball game.
They did exactly that, beating the Hawks, 96-82. And they did it in atypical fashion. For most of the season, the Clippers have been dependent on their starters, in particular on Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, to carry them to wins. For instance, the team was 4-9 when Paul scored less than 17 points heading into Wednesday's game.
Against the Hawks, the Clippers' leading scorers were a couple of guards off the bench -- Mo Williams with 25 and Eric Bledsoe with a season-high 14. Paul scored just 13 and Griffin just 12, his second-lowest point total of the season (he did get 10 rebounds for his 26th double-double). But the Clippers managed to win handily without big nights from their stars.
The bench provided more than just scoring. After the Hawks had scored 27 points in the first quarter, a second unit of Williams, Bledsoe, Bobby Simmons, Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin completely changed the tenor of the game in the second quarter by playing smothering defense. The Clippers held the Hawks to 15 points on 26 percent shooting in the second, after Atlanta had made 69 percent of its shots in the first. The defensive effort rubbed off on the starters, too, as the Hawks scored just 20 points in each of the final two quarters.
Bledsoe's game was particularly eye-opening. After knee surgery in October to repair a torn meniscus, the second-year guard missed the first seven weeks of the season. He made his debut on Feb. 11 and was playing in just his 15th game of the season Wednesday. He played a season-high 17 minutes. In addition to his 14 points, he also had four steals -- the second time he's registered four steals in his last three games. Primarily a tempo-pushing change of pace guard last season, Bledsoe seems to be remaking himself as a pressure defender this year. Two Bledsoe steals in the course of three fourth-quarter possessions helped stretch the L.A. lead from seven to 11 while Paul and Griffin were resting for the stretch run. The Clippers were adamant about keeping Bledsoe out of the big Paul trade in December and have been reluctant to use him as a trade chip even as the trade deadline draws near. We're beginning to see why.
For the Hawks, it was a difficult finish to a difficult road trip. They won just two of six on a trip that took them from coast to coast and are ready to get home. Joe Johnson and Josh Smith led Atlanta in scoring, as they so often do, with 19 and 18 respectively.
With the win, the Clippers improve to 24-17, 13-7 at home. The Hawks drop to 24-19, and fall below .500 on the road at 12-13.