Atlanta Puts the Clippers to Sleep, 121-84 : Shue Benches Benjamin, Three Other Starters, at Start of Second Half

Times Staff Writer

Sunday night was a long one for the Clippers, who suffered their second worst defeat of the season, 121-84, to the Atlanta Hawks, but the nights have been even longer for center Benoit Benjamin.

It was 3:20 a.m. Sunday when Benjamin returned to the hotel where the Clippers stayed.

Benjamin wasn't fined because he didn't break a team rule. The Clippers don't have a curfew unless they are playing back-to-back games. And they didn't have a curfew at all until Benjamin stayed out late after their season-opening 46-point loss to the Nuggets at Denver. He went dancing after sitting out the fourth quarter of the Nugget game because of a sprained ankle and was fined an undisclosed amount.

At the Omni Sunday, Benjamin was on the bench to open the second half, but he wasn't alone. He was joined by Clipper starters Reggie Williams (who finished with 5 points, 1 rebound), Michael Cage (3 points, 4 rebounds) and Larry Drew (4 points, 4 rebounds).

Benjamin had 11 points and 5 rebounds as the Clippers extended their losing streak to a season-high six.

They have lost eight of their last nine games and have been beaten by 19, 19 and 37 points in their last three games.

Coach Gene Shue had a private talk with Benjamin, but he had no comment on Benjamin's night life. Shue did say, however: "I do expect them to get proper rest and take care of themselves."

Shue said he doesn't consider a player's private life an issue unless it causes a sharp drop in performance, and Benjamin has been inconsistent for the last two seasons.

The young Clipper center was reportedly spotted at a New York club at 5 a.m. on New Year's morning. On New Year's night, Benjamin was badly outplayed by Patrick Ewing, New York's center, in a 115-96 loss to the Knicks.

Said Benjamin: "I don't understand what me going out for two nights has to do with the ballclub.

"I have a private life. I can do what I want as long as I come to games and perform."

None of the Clippers (8-18) are doing much when it comes to the games. They were defenseless as they fell behind by 20 points (42-22) at the end of the first quarter, 34 (74-40) at the break and 35 (98-63) at the end of the third quarter. They trailed by as many as 46 points in the fourth quarter.

"It's like we're falling back into the same pattern of last year," said captain Mike Woodson, the only Clipper regular to start the second half. "It's frustrating. We can't give up. We've got to go back to the things that we did earlier this year. That's how we won eight games."

Benjamin and the other starters who were benched didn't second-guess the coach.

"If that's his decision, so be it," Benjamin said. "I'm not going to let it get me down."

Said Drew: "What I want to say, I can't say."

Said Cage, who had his worst game of the season: "We were down by a lot of points, and Gene wanted to make some changes."

In the second-half shake-up, Shue started Joe Wolf, Earl Cureton, Darnell Valentine and Norris Coleman with Woodson.

The new lineup played well, but there was no way the Clippers were going to catch Atlanta (21-7).

"The Hawks are just too good for us," Shue said. "They are playing very, very well, and we are not playing that well. The combination of that made it no contest. It was a dynamite performance by them.

"We just didn't have anything going at all. I tried all the combinations I thought I could. I could have thrown any lineup into the game and not been able to see the difference."

Shue was obviously concerned with the Clipper defense, which has been ineffective in the last five games. And the offense isn't much better. Several players have complained privately that Shue needs to make changes and junk the Clippers' half-court offense for a running game.

However, Shue doesn't think he has the players who can run and win consistently.

When the Clippers try to run they usually get run over, as they did here.

Atlanta, which is locked with the Detroit Pistons in a tight Central Division race, needed an easy game before facing the Pistons in back-to-back games this week.

And that's just what happened as the Hawks raced to their fifth straight win, shooting 72% in the first quarter. Atlanta has won 10 of its last 11 games to overtake the Pistons for the division lead.

All-Star forward Dominique Wilkins, who destroyed the Clippers by scoring a team-record 53 points last season in the Hawks' 125-115 victory here, had another big game against the Clippers.

Wilkins scored 26 points, all in the first half. He had 14 points in the first quarter and added 12 in the second quarter, hitting 11 of 14 shots from the floor.

Wilkins cooled off in the second half, missing five consecutive shots before he left the game with 3:56 left in the third quarter.

Wilkins had a lot of help in beating the Clippers. Guard Glenn (Doc) Rivers had 15 assists, all in the first half, to break his team and arena records.

Guard John Battle came off the bench to score 20 points, and guard Randy Wittman added 18 points, 14 in the first half.

Clipper Notes

The Atlanta chapter of the NAACP had planned to picket the game to protest the lack of blacks in the front offices of the Hawks and Atlanta Braves, both owned by Ted Turner. However, they called off the protest. "I guess they did a head count," joked Stan Kasten, president of the Hawks and Braves. The Hawks have 10 blacks in their front office, including assistant coach Don Chaney, a former Clipper head coach. . . . Power forward Kevin Willis of the Hawks sat out the game with a sprained right knee. Atlanta is 6-1 since he was injured Dec. 18 in a game in Milwaukee. Forward Antoine Carr also missed the game with a strained right hamstring suffered in the Hawks' 117-110 victory in Cleveland last Wednesday. Both players are expected to return for Tuesday night's game here against Detroit. . . . The Clippers, off to an 0-2 start on their seven-game East Coast trip, have lost 16 consecutive road games against Eastern Conference teams during the last two seasons, including six straight games in Atlanta.

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