The Clippers’ starting lineup, short on originality, has suddenly become a frustrated and confused group, something that may have seemed improbable on a team that has used the same unit in all 9 games this season.
The trouble surfaced Saturday night in a 134-107 defeat by Denver at McNichols Arena, the Clippers’ seventh straight loss to the Nuggets and ninth in a row here.
Perhaps it was the frustration over losing to the same team that beat the Clippers by 46, 6, 18, 10 and 25 points in last season’s 5 games.
Maybe it was the wear and tear on a young team that had played 4 games in 5 nights, with Coach Gene Shue simply wanting to bring in some fresh bodies, particularly against the high-scoring Nuggets.
Or maybe a problem is developing.
Starting center Benoit Benjamin, who played 17 minutes, was obviously unhappy.
“Gene has just got to let us play,” he said. “On nights he lets us play, we play. But when he starts. . . . the lineup around, we don’t know what the hell is going on.
“This Jekyll and Hyde thing isn’t doing anybody any good.”
Reggie Williams played 15 minutes and took only 1 shot. And he is the starting shooting guard.
“I didn’t take a shot (before being removed in the first quarter), so they couldn’t say I missed a shot,” Williams said. “I don’t know what is going on. All I can do is sit and be patient and cheer my teammates on.
“I’m a little bit upset, but it goes with the territory. Anyone who is used to playing, and then is not, would be. But I’m not going to get like last year and go into a shell and not talk to anybody.”
Starting point guard Norm Nixon, who played 16 minutes, also had reservations about the lineup changes.
“We get frustrated when he (Shue) does that, when we don’t know what is going on, either. You have to be able to have a set lineup. . . . and establish who your team is going to be.”
So the players are frustrated?
“No question,” said Nixon, a 10-year veteran. “No question at all.”
Shue said he planned to substitute early all along, that no one was taken out for poor play. The fact that the Nuggets (6-3) led by as many as 18 points in the first quarter only heightened the moves.
There must have been something to his thinking as the Clippers (4-5, including 1-5 on the road) closed within 64-61 at halftime. But Denver pulled away in the third quarter to an easy victory.
Benjamin, who scored 25 and 22 points in his previous 2 games, both major factors in Clipper victories, played 12 minutes in the first half and only 5 in the second. He scored a total of 6 points.
Nixon, who played 33 minutes in the last game, played 13 in the first half and 3 in the second.
At least Williams received increased time in the last 2 quarters, but he played only 6 minutes in the first half. In the second, he played 9.
“We came right out and were losing it,” Shue said. “I intended to substitute frequently coming in, just trying to do whatever we could to win.
“Playing Denver tonight was a real hard game for us. They play such a unique style, cutting and passing all the time. I knew it would be hard on the players.”
Shue was right on that account. He just didn’t know how difficult it would be on them.
Starting forward Charles Smith, who played 35 minutes, led the Clippers with 23 points, hitting 9 of 13 shots. Danny Manning added 20 points and 11 rebounds in 38 minutes off the bench.
Alex English scored a game-high 28 points for the Nuggets, who have won 5 of 6 at home. Fat Lever had 23 and Michael Adams 21.
So who’s not playing? Grant Gondrezick has become the odd-man out among the guards, a role formerly held by Tom Garrick. But Garrick has played well since being re-signed off waivers, so Gondrezick’s time has dropped drastically from the start of the season, when he played 17 and 19 minutes in the first and third games, respectively. The last 5 games for Gondrezick: 3 minutes in the overtime game against Phoenix, 25 against Portland, 0 against Sacramento, 0 again against Indiana and 10 against Denver. The Clippers are carrying 6 guards, 1 more than Coach Gene Shue had planned.