The NBA season can be volatile for many teams and players. The most consistent and successful players are constantly visible. A team’s season can be made or broken on the success of their best player. With that being said, there is often a less visible process taking place in the periphery. Complimentary role players are often shifted between the bench and starting unit in order to find chemistry, inject new talent or in response to trade or other situations. Injuries can often accelerate this process.
This season, perhaps no team better exemplifies the constant shifting nature and fluidity of this process than the Los Angeles Clippers. The team has recorded 31 different starting lineups since the beginning of the 2017-18 season. With the season closing in on the final stretch, the Clippers continue to engage in this fluid process.
For the second game in a row, the team has started 6-foot-5 rookie Sindarius Thornwell at small forward. Thornwell has started the last two games alongside Lou Williams, who has been having a career-year, and Austin Rivers.
This past Saturday, Thornwell made his first start since December 15. Thornwell lined up against LeBron James and did an admirable job defending the superstar forward. James still had a great statistical game with 25 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in 38 minutes. However, Thornwell is credited with putting extra pressure on James and helping slow down the Cavaliers’ attack in a game that the Clippers won handily. Thornwell spoke on his role with the team.
“I just go out and do it to the best of my abilities. If that’s guarding LeBron [James] or guarding whoever that night, I’m going to go out and give it my best shot, try my hardest,” Thornwell told Basketball Insiders.
After their victory over the Cavaliers, the Clippers were sluggish in much of their following game against the Orlando Magic. After an impressive defensive performance against James, Thornwell struggled on defense to start the game as he committed three first-quarter fouls against forward Jonathan Simmons but still expressed confidence in his performance in a game the Clippers eventually won.
“Feel good. Feel good. I feel like besides the fouls I played pretty solid,” Thornwell said. “I did, pretty much, did my job. Did what I was supposed to do. Besides the fouls, I feel like I did a solid job tonight.”
Thornwell finished the game with six points, one rebound, one assist and one steal while going two 2-2 from the field in 14 minutes. For the record, these are not the first starts of the season for the rookie wing. He started six games in November as the team adjusted to the unexpected loss of anticipated regular season contributors in guards Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic. While the starts offered an opportunity for Thornwell to shine early in his career, those starts also coincided with a 1-5 record for the Clippers.
The lack of team success helped to end this early season experiment and Thornwell returned to the second unit. From December until Saturday, Thornwell had only registered two starts. Except for the month of February where he picked up seven DNPs, Thornwell has been able to contribute as a role player averaging 13.8 minutes per game coming off the bench. With most of his contributions for the season coming from the bench, Thornwell did not hesitate to talk about how hard the second unit works and what their goals are.
“Second unit out there, just about going out there and playing hard. And holding, trying to get a bigger lead. Trying to get a run in and create momentum. That’s what we go out and do with our energy and our effort. Creating turnovers, getting steals, getting stops and creating easy opportunities,” Thornwell stated.
When asked if the bench players talk to each other about these things or if they just happen, he clarified succinctly.
“It just happens,” Thornwell stated.
Thornwell did make it clear that part of the success is that the Clippers teammates have built up familiarity with each other and know how to play off each other’s talents. He also hinted the ball moves a bit more freely in the second unit.
“We all spend time with each other. We play with each other, get to know each other’s game,” Thornwell stated. “We kind of know whatever everybody can do. I know what Lou’s going to do. I like when that second unit together when it becomes an up and down game. Getting steals, getting out in transition. Balls touching everyone’s hands.
With the Clippers holding the eighth seed in the West and numerous teams fighting over potential playoff seeding, both Thornwell and forward Tobias Harris commented on their thoughts regarding the postseason.
“Just continue to get better offensively. And defensively, really lock in and really be able to execute especially when we get up and really hold onto [the lead],” Harris stated.
With a three-game road trip looming against teams with talented wing players, Thornwell talked about the upcoming matchups.
“You can’t look past anybody. You know, this is an important road trip coming down the stretch. End of the season, trying to win, end it on a good note. Take it one game at a time and focus on one team at a time,” Thornwell stated.
Fifteen of the Clippers’ remaining 17 games are against playoff contending teams and the team is under great pressure to win each one. Despite this pressure, the Clippers are still testing new lineups. Whether on the bench or in the starting lineup, Sindarius Thornwell’s attitude is to do whatever it takes to help his team make it to the playoffs.
“I just do whatever they ask me to do. I just do whatever they ask that game,” Thornwell said.
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