Mitchell's Return Leaves the Clippers at a Loss : San Antonio Forward Replaces Berry and Keys the Spurs to a 106-100 Victory

Times Staff Writer

Forward Mike Mitchell of the San Antonio Spurs hit bottom last season. It started when he underwent knee surgery 10 games into the season and lost his starting spot when he returned.

Then his season ended 1 1/2 months early when he entered the ASAP Clinic in Van Nuys for treatment of a cocaine problem. He played a career-low 40 games and averaged a career-low 12.7 points.

But, things are going a lot better this season.

Mitchell scored a season-high 25 points as the Spurs beat the Clippers, 106-100, Saturday night before 7,369 fans at the Hemisfair Arena.

Mitchell started his first game of the season in place of Walter Berry, who was sidelined with a sore back.

"We talked about Mitchell in the locker room before the game and everyone was enthused about Berry being out," Clipper Coach Gene Shue said. "But I said that's crazy because Mike Mitchell is a hell of a scorer. I'd rather have Berry playing than Mitchell. That guy's a real scorer. Whenever they needed a big shot late in the game they went to Mitchell. He was the difference between winning and losing."

Mitchell took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 points as San Antonio wiped out a seven-point Clipper lead.

"He was the Mitchell of old tonight," said Clipper guard Mike Woodson, who scored 19 points. "I'm glad to see him getting an opportunity to play. He's really been struggling."

Mitchell scored 10 points in the final 5 1/2 minutes as the Spurs crushed the Clippers with a 19-6 blitz. He sealed the victory for San Antonio (16-20) by scoring the final four points on free throws.

Mitchell hit 9-of-19 shots from the floor and made all seven of his free throws. He also had 7 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal in 38 minutes.

Mitchell is just glad to have an opportunity to play again.

"I have to go out and prove myself every time I'm out on the floor," Mitchell said. "I'm just happy to be out there on the floor. I'm glad they've got the confidence in me.

"There was always something holding me back. First, it was the knee surgery and then the drug rehab. I was 25 pounds heavier when I came back, but I've lost it and I feel a lot better. I'm just praying that I can stay healthy."

Guards Leon Wood and Alvin Robertson also played a key role in the Spur comeback.

Wood, who was a star at Cal State Fullerton, scored 21 points, including 15 in the second half. He als had eight assists. Robertson added 13 points and 10 assists.

With the Clippers leading 96-91, Wood made a three-point shot from 25 feet to cut the lead to 96-94.

Mitchell followed with four straight points, hitting a 10-foot jumper and a pair of free throws to push San Antonio's lead to 98-96. Robertson added a layin with 2:16 left to make it 100-96.

Although the Clippers lost for the 16th time in 18 games, they may have finally found a good combination.

Shue went with a lineup of three forwards and two guards for the final 18 minutes, using Michael Cage, and rookies Joe Wolf and Ken Norman at forward along with Larry Drew at point guard and Woodson at shooting guard.

"We played a very good game. We had a good combination of players in there and they worked well together," Shue said. "Norman, Cage and Wolf did a good job on the front line and there's a chance you'll see that lineup again."

However, the Clippers didn't score a basket in the final 6 1/2 minutes and turned over the ball three consecutive times in the final four minutes.

Drew, who lost his starting job to Darnell Valentine last Monday, scored a team-high 24 points in 33 minutes off the bench. Valentine had just two points in 15 minutes.

Drew started the second half in place of Valentine, and scored 12 points in the third quarter, making all five shots he took from the floor and adding a pair of free throws.

However, Drew doesn't think he's earned his job back.

Asked if he expected to start the Clippers' next game Tuesday night in Houston, Drew said: "Nope, I can't do anything but play hard."

However, it will be hard to keep Drew on the bench if he continues to play like this.

Drew almost came up with a steal which could have turned the game around for the Clippers (10-28).

With the Spurs leading 102-100 after Woodson made two free throws, Wood missed a shot with 37 seconds left. The Spurs retained possession with 30 seconds left after Cage lost a battle for the rebound to ex-Clipper Kurt Nimphius when the ball went out of bounds.

"The ball just slipped through my fingers," Cage said.

But, play was stopped when referee Ronnie Nunn accidently blew his whistle.

Robertson inbounded the ball to Wood in front of the San Antonio bench. Drew appeared to knock the ball out of bounds off Robertson's leg, but the Nunn saw it differently and gave the ball back to San Antonio.

The Clippers never saw the ball again.

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