LOS ANGELES (AP) — Blake Griffin is used to not knowing who’s in the Los Angeles Clippers’ lineup these days.
Injuries have sidelined him and the other four opening-night starters at one point or another, making this the most challenging season of Doc Rivers’ coaching career.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, with the amount of injuries. It just seems like all your facilitators, your key guys,” Rivers said. “I never go in the training room. I guess now I should go in there because I could see some of my players.”
Yet the Clippers are hanging in, sitting at .500 for the first time since Nov. 7 — certainly not their goal but far better than what it could have been. They’re a half-game out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference and 1½ games out of fifth place.
They take a four-game winning streak into Monday night’s reunion with Chris Paul, who visits Staples Center for the first time since his blockbuster trade to the Rockets last summer.
Much of the credit for the team’s resiliency goes to the “Goon Squad,” the players’ nickname for the bench. Its chemistry has been disrupted as reserves have joined the lineup to sub for Griffin, DeAndre Jordan (left ankle), Austin Rivers (right ankle), Patrick Beverly (knee surgery) and Danilo Gallinari (glute).
But Griffin sees positive in the situation.
“These guys are getting a lot of time and experience,” he said, “and it will help us down the road.”
Lou Williams, the 13-year pro who came over from Houston in the Paul deal, has emerged as a star and fan favorite. He scored a career-high 50 points last week in a win against defending NBA champion Golden State, the team’s first in over three years. He’s averaging 34 points over the last 11 games, and has started 10 games so far.
“He’s got it down to a science right now, getting to spots, getting his shot, getting guys in the air, drawing contact,” Sacramento coach Dave Joeger said. “It’s fun to watch, except when you’re the visiting team coach.”
The rest of the Clippers’ bench has followed Williams’ example.
Making his first start of the season, Willie Reed notched a double-double in place of Jordan on Saturday in a 126-105 win over the Kings. Sam Dekker had a season-high 13 points.
Montrezl Harrell has scored in double figures in three straight games, averaging 18.7 points. Fresh from the G League, Tyrone Wallace is averaging 13.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in his first five NBA games.
“We got some big pieces out,” Williams said. “Now you understand what you have to back those guys up.”
More importantly, when Griffin and Milos Teodosic (foot) returned, they blended seamlessly with the reserves-turned-starters and trusted them.
“They are giving the other guys room to still play the way they have been playing when they were out,” Rivers said. “Every single guy has bought into it.”
That mindset will need to prevail because the injury situation doesn’t look to improve soon.
Beverley had season-ending knee surgery in November, although he recently got off crutches and has rejoined the team to travel and cheer from the bench. Jordan is closer to returning than Austin Rivers, while Teodosic continues to be monitored because of plantar fasciitis.
The Clippers won’t benefit from the schedule either. They are home for just 10 games in February and March, when they play a combined 16 on the road, including seven in a row from Feb. 9-27. That season-long trip includes games against East-leading Boston and West-leading Golden State.
Still, Griffin says he’s “had a blast” this season, even with all the injuries and being sidelined because of a sprained knee and concussion himself.
“This team really bonds with each other, really vibes well with each other,” he said. “Guys are injured, guys are out; we just play hard. We’re all the Goon Squad at this point.”
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