Clippers are getting top-rate defense from their starters and bench

The Clippers' Chris Paul, left, and Blake Griffin cover Portland's Damian Lillard on Nov. 9.

The Clippers’ Chris Paul, left, and Blake Griffin cover Portland’s Damian Lillard on Nov. 9.

(Harry How / Getty Images)

For most of the young season, the Clippers have replaced their starters with a five-man bench lineup and rarely missed a beat.

One minute, Chris Paul runs the show with his eyes, Blake Griffin punishes defenses with his inside-out game and DeAndre Jordan flushes down roof-scraping alley-oops. Then five new faces will check in and start denting the scoreboard with equal efficiency: Jamal Crawford frees himself from mid-range, Austin Rivers attacks the rim with abandon and Marreese Speights draws centers away from the rim with his three-point touch.

The offensive chemistry is the flashy affirmation of how Clippers Coach Doc Rivers has structured his strict 10-man rotation through eight games. But each group’s defensive cohesion has been even more impressive, which was evident during the Clippers’ (7-1) 111-80 win over the Blazers (5-4) on Wednesday night.


The Blazers scored fewer than 100 points for the first time this season, and none of their starters — not even star point guard Damian Lillard — scored in double figures. They also scored just 32 points in the first half, their lowest output in any half this season.

This fits into a season-long trend for the Clippers, even if the season isn’t quite yet long. A defensive rating measures points allowed per 100 possessions and should be the Clippers’ favorite statistic. Of lineups that have logged at least 60 minutes together this season, the Clippers’ starters — Paul, J.J. Redick, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Griffin and Jordan — rank first in the league with a defensive rating of 81.6. Right behind them at No. 2, with a defensive rating of 89.2, is the bench unit of Raymond Felton, Austin Rivers, Crawford, Wesley Johnson and Speights.

The Clippers, as a team, have the best defensive rating in the league at 89.3. The next lowest is the Charlotte Hornets at 95.4. A lot of factors play into this across-the-board defensive efficiency, but is one of those that Coach Rivers’ five-at-a-time subbing has allowed each unit to gain defensive familiarity?

“It could be. I don’t think it is, but it could be because they do have continuity,” Rivers said. “They kind of know each other.”

Or they really know each other, as the two groups are getting more run than any other team’s respective first and second units.

Through eight games, the starters have played 148 minutes together (more than any other five-player combination in the league) while the bench unit has played 82 minutes together. After that, no other Clippers’ lineup has played more than 25 minutes. Many of the league’s 29 other teams have dealt with injuries or developing rosters, which has made it nearly impossible to match Rivers’ rotational consistency.


And this does manifest itself on the defensive end, even if it is in small ways.

Rivers said the second unit switches screens one through four — meaning that unless Speights’ man is setting a screen, the defense switches on it — and that changes if Griffin or Jordan is playing with that unit. With the starters, small forward Mbah a Moute usually guards the opposing team’s best backcourt scorer. With the bench team, that duty is drawn by Felton, a ball-pestering veteran point guard. On Wednesday morning, Crawford credited the second team’s defensive consistency to communication.

The results, as of now, lie in the numbers and standings. The Clippers are winning big and in a way no other team can. While their two separate lineups are great at putting the ball in the basket, they are even better at keeping it out.

“From the beginning of the season, our first unit has been together and kind of has that advantage of getting familiar with each other,” Griffin said. “But the second unit has done an unbelievable job, especially defensively, just buying into the principles. We have some great defenders.”

Twitter: @dougherty_jesse