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Ailing Clippers Run Out of Forwards--and Gas : Injuries to Johnson, Wilkes and Maxwell Too Much; Warriors Win, 127-115

Times Staff Writer

Almost before the Clippers were able to break a sweat here Tuesday night, they had lost starting forwards Marques Johnson and Cedric Maxwell and top reserve Jamaal Wilkes, which equaled about 38 points a game and 28 years of NBA experience.

That also would seemingly result in a Golden State Warrior rout of the undermanned Clippers, who were forced to rely on guard Derek Smith and a group of little-used reserves.

But even though the Clippers were beaten by the Warriors, 127-115, in front of 10,967 at the Oakland Coliseum Arena, it didn’t qualify as a poor performance by any means.

The Clippers, losers of three straight after opening the season with five wins, stayed close as long as they could before fading in the stretch and enabling the Warriors to win their fourth straight game.

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“It was a gallant effort,” said Clipper forward Michael Cage, one of those pressed into a full-time role. “The final score was not indicative of our effort. We can’t be too bummed out about it.”

Try telling that to Clipper Coach Don Chaney, who said he felt just as lousy after this loss than any other.

“I had a headache all day, worrying about this game,” Chaney said. “But after I saw those guys go down (with injuries), it became Excedrin headache No. 44 for me.”

Despite Smith’s 29 points, 7 assists and 3 blocked shots and the surprisingly strong play from reserves such as Benoit Benjamin, Rory White and Cage, the Clippers simply didn’t have enough talent available to challenge the suddenly respectable Warriors.

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On the bench were Johnson with a lower-back strain, Maxwell with a badly strained right hamstring muscle, and Wilkes with a sprained right ankle. Johnson suffered his unusual injury during Tuesday morning’s shoot-around, while Wilkes and Maxwell both were hurt in the first quarter.

Even with the injuries, the first quarterdefinitely was the Clippers’ best quarter. They held a 37-23 lead and had the Warriors on the verge of a blowout.

They did that without Johnson, who strained his back after shooting a routine jump shot Tuesday morning, and Wilkes, who came down on Purvis Short’s foot after scoring a layup four minutes into the game.

Then, with 14 seconds left in the first quarter and the Clippers working for the last shot, Maxwell made a cut at the baseline and fell, clutching his right hamstring.

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“First time that’s ever happened to me,” Maxwell said. “Lucky me. I come to L.A. and get sick (against Houston) and pull a ham.”

Shorthanded as they were, the Clippers had to scrap just to stay close to Golden State. The Warriors erased the Clippers’ 16-point second-quarter lead by shooting 80.8% and took a 69-65 halftime lead.

Thanks primarily to Smith, the Clippers entered the fourth quarter trailing, 98-96. But that’s when the Warriors pulled away.

“Once we put the hammer down on them,” Cage said, “we couldn’t keep it down.”

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Blame that on Chris Mullin, the Warrior rookie who scored 7 of his 19 points early in the fourth quarter to put the hammer down on the Clippers for good. Mullin, coming off the bench, ably supported Golden State’s Joe Barry Carroll (27 points) and Short (26 and 9 rebounds).

“I’m not one for excuses,” Chaney said. “We have all these (reserves) who get big money to play, so they should go in and do the job.” Actually, except for Benjamin, all the Clippers’ highest-paid players were on the end of the bench. Still, Chaney maintains those who were healthy should have held off the Warriors.

“I knew about Marques being out in advance, but when Max and Jamaal went out, we suffered,” Chaney said. “We had small mental mistakes, because guys were not used to playing together. But, yes, I am encouraged we stayed close.”

Benjamin, in his strongest showing, scored 13 points and had 5 rebounds in 22 minutes. White, forced to start the second half after playing a total of 10 minutes in the previous seven games, had 10 points. Bridgeman added 13 points, and Cage had 7 rebounds and 6 points.

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One player the Clippers can always count on was Smith. Although Chaney is trying to have Smith pass the ball more, that strategy was put to rest about the same time Maxwell, Johnson and Wilkes were out of commission.

So, even though the Warriors draped two and sometimes three players around him, Smith still sank 12 of 19 shots. To his credit, Smith also tied his career high in assists (7).

“I tried to pick it up, do more things,” Smith said. “We came up here thinking we’ve got 12 guys, and that demoralizes you when you don’t. The guys off the bench played well, they’ve got to help me more. I can’t do it alone.”

And, it is clear, the Clippers can’t win with nine instead of 12 bodies.

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Clipper Notes Clipper General Manager Carl Scheer talked with free-agent guard Norm Nixon’s agent several times Tuesday but no progress was made in the negotiations.


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