By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin usually command the spotlight for the Clippers but if the Los Angeles team goes deep into this season's playoffs, it will be because of the high-octane energy of their bench.
Spearheaded by former Sixth Man-of-the-Year Jamal Crawford, the Clippers reserves are arguably the best in the NBA, time and again giving their first unit welcome relief as they explode into action with their up-tempo style.
While most teams limit the on-court minutes spent by their back-up players in the post-season, the Clippers buck that trend by sticking to their usual rotation, confident that Crawford, Eric Bledsoe and company will at the very least maintain a lead, if not extend it.
"This is the deepest team I have ever been involved with," back-up forward Matt Barnes told Reuters after the Clippers outmuscled the Memphis Grizzlies 112-91 in their playoff opener on Saturday.
"We have got 13 guys that can play, and we played 12 against the Grizzlies. We just want to keep bringing that energy out on to the court.
"We are more of an up-tempo, running team, passing lanes and getting on fast breaks. We try to change the tempo from the starting unit and we did a good job on that (against Memphis)."
Asked what made the Clippers bench players so effective, Barnes replied: "We have a lot of depth and our coach (Vinny Del Negro) gives us a chance.
"Usually in the playoffs the rotation tightens a little bit but he is still going with our normal rotation and we are able to be effective. We've got a very deep team and we play hard."
Barnes, a nine-year league veteran who has played for eight different teams, was one of three Clippers reserves who got into double figures against fifth-seeded Memphis on Saturday, contributing 10 points.
Crawford, the 2010 Sixth Man-of-the-Year when he was playing for the Atlanta Hawks, added 13 points while speedy guard Bledsoe weighed in with 15 on seven-of-seven shooting from the field, along with six rebounds and four assists.
Back-up forward and former Lakers player Lamar Odom, who pulled in seven rebounds against the Grizzlies, has long admired his fellow reserves.
"With Jamal and other players who can come off the bench and get you double-doubles, double digits in assists or rebounds, this is one of the strongest benches that I've ever seen," Odom told Reuters.
However the 33-year-old, who has played 13 seasons in the NBA, would prefer to pass judgment until the Clippers have completed their post-season.
"For me, this team is going to be rated on how we finish the season, and that's when we can kind of rate where we stand," said Odom, who was awarded the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award in 2011, becoming the first Lakers player to land the honor.
"It's going to be important for us to finish at the top of the mountain if we're going to give ourselves some credit, especially at this time of the year when it's all about how you finish the season."
The fourth-seeded Clippers never trailed on Saturday and, though the Grizzlies cut the deficit to just one point early in the fourth quarter, the home team pulled away as reserves Crawford, Bledsoe, Odom, Barnes and Ronny Turiaf got to work.
Clippers coach Del Negro was suitably impressed that his back-up men had, once again, justified their extended minutes on court.
"The bench has been so productive for us all season," Del Negro smiled. "It's a unique thing to have the depth that we have so why not use it? They deserve the right to be out there and they have been producing for us."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry)