By now, it isn't at all surprising when Clipper guard Derek Smith has a prolific scoring night. In fact, it is news these days when Smith doesn't produce offensively.
"I keep repeating myself about Derek," Clipper interim Coach Don Chaney said. "But there's just so much to say about him. He makes thing happen. He's the guy we go to now."
Although Smith didn't singlehandly beat Kansas City, it is doubtful that the Clippers could have held off the Kings' late charge without him. Twenty-five of Smith's points came in the second half, seven in the final five minutes after Kansas City had pulled within five points.
The victory improved the Clipper record to 28-49, while the Kings fell to 30-46. Both teams have yet to be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, but the inevitable will happen any game now.
Kansas City is three games behind Phoenix for the eighth Western Conference playoff spot with six games to play. The Clippers are five games behind the Suns with five to play, but they are technically still in contention since the Clippers won the season series from the Suns and could conceivably tie them for eighth overall.
Wednesday night, Smith just wanted to win and play well. He did both, so naturally he was happy.
Smith, who made 14 of 23 shots from the field and 13 of 17 from the free-throw line, has scored fewer than 20 points only once in the last 23 games. During this span, he has averaged 27 points a game. More than anything, he is pleased with his consistency.
"I have tried to be consistent ever since I got this job," Smith said. "I didn't set a goal in terms of how many points. They just come. There was a time earlier in the season when I was stuck on a streak of scoring 19 points. Now, I keep moving up the ladder."
Chaney believes that Smith is not near the top of the ladder yet.
"He's just learning what Derek Smith is all about," Chaney said. "Every day, he surprises himself and is learning his abilities. The guy is not even close to reaching his potential. I've said it before: He is going to be a superstar."
If Chaney is right, and Smith does get better, the rest of the NBA had better beware. Kansas City Coach Phil Johnson assigned Reggie Theus to guard Smith, but Theus couldn't even slow Smith down.
Smith, 6-6, is effective partly because he can either post low or go backdoor for a lob, depending on where his defender is playing him. Against the Kings, Smith couldn't miss his turnaround jump shot and was on target, as usual, on lob passes.
"When I'm hitting that shot, I can't be stopped," Smith said bluntly. "I'm a double threat."
Johnson said the way to stop Smith is to become physical and not let him post low, which obviously is easier said than done.
"Geez," Smith said. "I shot 17 free throws. How can Kansas City be more physical than that."
The Kings, who will be moving to Sacramento next season, had spent the last few days in their home-to-be before flying to Los Angeles Wednesday morning. Their fatigue showed early as the Clippers sprinted to a 10-point halftime lead. But the Kings outplayed the Clippers in the fourth quarter, pulling within three points at 122-119 with 11 seconds left when Theus scored after stealing the ball from Norm Nixon.
But Smith and James Donaldson each sank one free throw to make it 124-119 with 10 seconds left, and Eddie Johnson's three-point shot at the buzzer merely made it appear closer than it was.
Smith, who also had 7 rebounds and 6 assists, was supported by Marques Johnson (17 points, 7 rebounds), Michael Cage (14 points) and Bill Walton (10 points, 10 rebounds).
Kansas City received 20 points from both rookie Otis Thorpe and Theus. Eddie Johnson and Mark Olberding each added 18 points.