LOS ANGELES -- Nicknames are a funny thing.
People can’t really nickname themselves. Well, at least not if they want to be taken seriously anyway. And getting a nickname to stick and catch on isn’t always easy, either.
You kind of need the stars to align just right and everyone to be on the same page for it to hit and it finally has for the Los Angeles Clippers’ second unit, which from this point forth will simply be known as “A Tribe Called Bench.”
I first asked Jamal Crawford, an early favorite to win the Sixth Man of the Year award, last month if he had a preference for a nickname for the Clippers' second unit that was slowly beginning to dominate games. He didn't at that time, but shortly afterward other writers asked fans and followers on Twitter what they thought the bench should be called.
We all had our own lame ideas. I threw out “Lob Deep,” but was immediately shot down. Dan Woike of the Orange County Register threw out “Mob Deep,” but he found out the New York Knicks had used that nickname last year. Woike then got a tweet from a San Francisco Bay Area follower with the handle @squidwai and “A Tribe Called Bench” was born.
Over the past three games, the Clippers have started to play highlights of the second unit to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario” and the #ATribeCalledBench hashtag has started trending on Twitter in Los Angeles during Clippers games.
It’s no surprise that the nickname has caught on over the past three games. During that stretch no Clippers starter has seen the court in the fourth quarter (except for Caron Butler being forced to play the final 1:36 during Sunday's 102-83 win over the Toronto Raptors after Matt Barnes was ejected). In fact, in four of the past five games, the Clippers haven’t needed to turn to their starters in the final stanza once.
“Our starters do a great job of wearing teams out, and then we try to bring in the knockout blow,” Crawford said. “That’s why this team was built this way. Seeing Chris [Paul], Blake [Griffin], DeAndre [Jordan], Caron and Chauncey [Billups] play heavy minutes and getting beat up last season, by the time the playoffs were here everybody was either injured or tired.
“Now with our depth, those guys will be fresh the whole way. When they’re fresh, we’ll be a much better team.”
Crawford wasn’t with the Clippers last season, but when Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro was trying to recruit Crawford in the offseason he mentioned the injuries Paul, Griffin and Butler suffered during the playoffs and the season-ending injury Billups had during the season. The Clippers needed to totally revamp their bench this season and it started with Crawford. It continued with the acquisition of Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, Ronny Turiaf, Ryan Hollins, Willie Green and Grant Hill to go along with a healthy Eric Bledsoe, who missed much of last season with a knee injury.
“I think you get into a little bit of a rotation chemistry,” Del Negro said. “I think the unit knows the play sets they usually run and the rotations and the chemistry builds. We haven’t been together that long. It seems like it, but it’s a new unit. We have seven new players and the guys are in and out of the lineup with injuries and things. Every team battles it, but I think the chemistry with the second unit hopefully will continue to get better.”
The Clippers’ depth will only get better when Billups and Hill return from their injuries and Odom returns to his old playing weight. Odom has already lost 12 pounds since the start of the season and is hoping to lose an additional 8 to 10 pounds as he is finally beginning to play like his old self again.
At full strength, the Clippers are one of the few teams in the league that can roll out a completely different lineup of five players, not only fully capable of sustaining a lead but building on it and closing games out.
In the past three games, the Clippers’ second unit has outscored their opponents by 38 points in the fourth quarter. They’re holding a 22-5 advantage in assists and have also grabbed 13 steals during that time. The biggest key for the Clippers’ success with the second unit has been their defense. They held Toronto to just 15 percent shooting and 10 points in the final period on Sunday.
“We know what our ultimate goal is,” Barnes said. “We have a very talented team and guys have to make sacrifices ... whether that’s playing time, shots or whatever it may be. Everyone has bought in and the more time we have together, the better we jell and the better we play. It’s important when you like your teammates, and we all get along on and off the court. I think that carries onto the court and I think that’s big for us.
“We’re just having fun out there,” he said. “We know we have something special here.”
As Barnes spoke about the closeness of the Clippers, his twin sons, Carter and Isaiah, gave Jordan a picture they drew of him. The boys then gathered around Griffin along with Paul’s son, Chris Jr., as Griffin regaled them with stories. Some teams talk about being close, but the Clippers’ locker room looks like a living room during the holidays.
“It’s fun, but we still need to work on everything,” Crawford said. “It’s still early, it’s only December. We’re trying to prepare to play for June. We have to get everybody healthy, continue to work on our concepts and continue to feed off each other.”
The question for the Clippers’ bench as they embark on a four-game road trip is if they’re happy with their new nickname.
“I’m cool with whatever you guys come up with,” Crawford said. “We’re winning, so I’m fine with it.”