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Benjamin, Clippers Put Away Nuggets, 119-118

Times Staff Writer

It’s hard to say exactly why the Sports Arena crowd of 9,712 gave the Clippers a standing ovation after a timeout with two seconds left in the game and then again a few moments later as they left the court with a 119-118 victory Monday night over the Denver Nuggets. There were, after all, several possibilities.

For the great start, during which they built a 16-point lead in the first half?

For the out-of-bounds lob pass from Gary Grant to Benoit Benjamin, with a nice screen by Quintin Dailey to get Benjamin open underneath, that resulted in a slam dunk with 14 seconds to play and the game-winning points?

Or, probably most impressively, for a great defensive effort that limited the Nuggets, the National Basketball Assn.'s No. 1 offense, to just two field goals and 11 points in the last 5:50 of the game?

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“I’ve never seen such intensity,” Clipper Coach Don Casey said after his team won for the fourth time in its last eight outings and split the four-game season series with the playoff-bound Nuggets.

“I thought it was like a playoff game. Those five guys, no matter who was on the court, were not going to let a loss happen.”

But Denver (37-32) had several chances. Trailing by a point after Benjamin’s slam, Walter Davis’ 22-foot jumper from the right of the free-throw line bounced off the rim and, after a scramble, out of bounds with two seconds left.

The Nuggets got the ball again, close enough for Blair Rasmussen to get off a 18-footer from the left side. It went long to start a Clipper celebration.

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Three Clippers scored 22 points or more, led by Ken Norman’s 28. Rookie Gary Grant had 22 points and 17 assists, one shy of his career high, set in the Clippers’ March 10 victory against Cleveland. Benjamin had 22 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots in 32 minutes, although he skipped the shoot-around and did not start because of stomach problems.

As an interim coach, Casey’s position is precarious enough without having three players on the roster with 10-day contracts, but that is the condition of the roster as he tries to save his job.

Rob Rose, the replacement for injured Reggie Williams, arrived at the Sports Arena just before tipoff and did not dress. By comparison, Casey and recently acquired reserve Barry Sumpter seemed like old friends--they were introduced at the Monday afternoon shoot-around.

“It’s unsettling because they have to learn so much so quickly,” Casey said. “But I’m the coach who’s here. It just says ‘coach,’ not ‘director of player personnel’ or ‘general manager.’ ”

Rose, a 6-foot-5 rookie guard, came from Wichita Falls of the Continental Basketball Assn., where he teamed in the backcourt with Ennis Whatley, the Clippers’ other player acquired on a 10-day deal. Rose, who played at George Mason, averaged 22.2 points a game in the CBA.

Sumpter, a 6-11 rookie forward-center from Austin Peay by way of Louisville, fills the void for a reserve big man, created when Greg Kite was waived Sunday. Sumpter played for Quad City of the CBA this season.

Thus, the Clippers’ 12-player roster with 15 games remaining included: four players who began the season in the CBA (Sumpter, Rose, Whatley and Eric White); one who came from Europe (rookie Rob Lock), and three who are in their first NBA season (Charles Smith, Gary Grant and Tom Garrick).

But the Clippers used that formula to score 61 points in the first half, one of their highest-scoring halves of the season. That included a 38-point first quarter, tying for their third best of the season.

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