A writer walks into a producer's office. He pitches a basketball movie, not unlike other basketball movies, but with a change: the protagonists are bench players. They are a collection of goofy characters and misfits: the young player with unfulfilled potential; the heralded summer signing failing to live up to his contract; the grizzled veteran eking out his last years of relevance; the quirky heavyweight with the childlike demeanor.
The film shows them flailing all season, or for the first 90 minutes, doing the bad things bad athletes do. Think the first half of The Mighty Ducks (the good one). They turn the ball over, miss open shots, and generally make fools of themselves. But, worst of all, they blow leads.
The starting lineup is full of stars, big name players with corny advertising campaigns. Our main characters are besieged by criticism in the media and on Twitter. The starters berate them in practice. "Do your job! You're gonna cost us the championship!" Things look dire.
We get a montage. Practices where they run sprints for hours and vomit on the court. Crazy, innovative drills like scrimmaging with an egg, not a ball, because soft hands.
Cut to the final act of the film and the final game of the season. The team needs to win to solidify its playoff seeding. The bench needs to perform against its overmatched opponent. The weary stars ignore their tired legs and build a dominating lead. Can the bench hold on? Can they preserve the game and the season? They pass, they shoot, and they play defense, all to the theme from Rudy or that song from Space Jam, the R. Kelly one. They actually build a lead.
As they return to the bench in the second quarter, the star player simply nods to his now triumphant teammates and says, "That'll do, boys. That'll do."
But there's a twist. The second half comes and they revert to form. Livid, the head coach has to send two stars back to the floor to preserve the dwindling lead. There will be no storybook ending for our heroes.
I wrote most of that at halftime, but had to add the last little bit in the fourth quarter. It would figure that in the final game of the regular season, the Clippers' yearlong bugaboo would be a sore spot once again. You had one job, bench!
Entering the final quarter, the Clippers led their quarry by 21. The young Suns scratched at the lead until it was just 11, forcing an especially angry Doc Rivers to begin sending starters back out to hold on for a 112-101 win.
The bench's poor second half play came in stark contrast to the first half. The Clippers entered the second quarter up 32-26, a lead built largely upon the backs of the starting lineup. Five minutes of bench play later, when J.J. Redick was the first of the starters to return to the floor, the lead had been stretched to 43-32. For the Suns, it should never have gotten better.
The Suns were overmatched. Marcus Morris, out with the flu, joined a cadre of injured Suns on the bench, including key contributors Brandon Knight, Alex Len, and Brandan Wright. Dramatically undersize -- power forward Markieff Morris grabbed the short straw to face DeAndre Jordan for the opening tip -- and short on skill, the Suns provided little early resistance.
DeAndre Jordan, whose 14 rebounds pushed him past Swen Nater for the club record and gave him the fourth-highest single season rebound total since 1980, did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Chris Paul easily penetrated a defense so soft that Charmin filed for trademark infringement. Matt Barnes finished +19, worst among the starters. All Blake Griffin did was tally 20, 8, and 5.
Early on, you could have accused the Clippers of overlooking the Suns, but, more likely than not, they were just bored. Like they did on Easter Sunday against the Lakers, the Clippers picked apart their depleted opponent, moving at half speed unless necessary, choosing efficiency over explosiveness. The starters, none of whom played more than 31 minutes, finished with 15 assists against just 6 turnovers.
On defense, Doc Rivers' game plan was clear: keep Eric Bledsoe (10 points on 4-14 shooting) and Markieff Morris (14/9/5) away from the rim, and let the Suns bomb away from outside. Doc paired DeAndre up against 6'6" P.J. Tucker, daring the small forward to cash in on all the free jumpshot looks. The Suns converted a few early shots, but quickly regressed before feasting on the Clipper bench in prolonged garbage time. Archie Goodwin had a team-high 18, and Gerald Green knocked down four three-pointers on his way to 16 points off the bench.
The floor tilted the Clippers' way anytime the two teams' starters shared the floor. The lead ballooned to as much as 30 in the third quarter. One would think that the Clippers' bench, or nearly any bench, for that matter, could protect a 30-point lead for 14 minutes against a lineup containing some guy named Jerel McNeal. (Show of hands, how many of you had heard of him?) The bench couldn't hold, but the starters could, and the Clippers earned their 56th victory of the season and franchise-best 8th road win in a row.
Focusing on the positive, with tonight's win, the Clippers are guaranteed to finish no lower than third in the Western Conference. If both San Antonio and Houston lose tomorrow, they finish second. Also, completing the season one day early gives the Clippers, especially those high-minute starters, one extra day of rest before the season continues in earnest on Saturday.
In the end, this 82nd game was not dissimilar from most of the first 81. The starting lineup was as great as the bench was not. I'm sure Doc and his starters would have enjoyed a few extra minutes of rest, but four days from now, the narrative will be the same. If the Clippers want to win, the starters will have to do it, from start to finish.
Some other (mostly serious) thing I noticed:
- Just one thing tonight, and it's about the taming of the once joyously manic Eric Bledsoe. There is no questioning Bledsoe's maturation as a player, but as he's brought his game under control, he's lost some of the elements that made him so enjoyable to watch. No longer is he a Mach 1 wrecking ball. Gone is his reckless abandon. His guts have been partially replaced by smarts. His progression reminds me of Blake Griffin's. My rational mind understands that their games must evolve, and that the smoothing of their rough edges will both enhance and prolong their respective careers, but the visceral part of me longs for the unrefined unpredictability of their past. It's a lesson I plan to take to heart: appreciate the special youths, warts and all.