Clippers Start Off in Right Direction

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For their first number, the Clippers played a little something rarely seen last season, when they were stuck at the bottom of the charts.

Today, they're No. 1 in the Pacific Division charts, ties included, thanks to a season-opening 102-88 victory over the Houston Rockets that was orchestrated by a suffocating trap defense in the second half that shut out the Rockets for a stretch of 8:23.

That was the crescendo in front of 10,858 at the Sports Arena. The Clippers dominated the end of the third quarter and the start of the fourth with a 16-0 run, which helped turn a 14-point, second-quarter deficit into an 87-74 advantage.

"Our defense generated the offense," said Clipper guard Reggie Williams, a key to the rally with outside shooting and steals. "We stopped them and they got confused. They didn't handle it (the 1-3-1 half-court trap) as well as they wanted, and we jumped on them from there."

The Rockets have danced this dance before. They lost twice in the Sports Arena in 1988-89, including one of the season's most emotional Clipper moments, the victory that snapped a 19-game losing streak.

Now there's this, which looked somewhat familiar while still being different. The new version was done without Charles Smith, who missed the second half with an aggravated muscle strain in his left hip, an injury he first suffered in practice earlier in the week. Smith is expected to sit out the next two days, and will be examined Monday.

"It was almost an identical game," Rocket Coach Don Chaney said, recalling last Feb. 8. "We played good in the first half and then crumbled in the second."

Credit the trapping defense, some of which the Clippers practiced for the first time Thursday. That and Williams, Ken Norman, reserves Michael Young and Carlton McKinney and. . . .

"The beautiful part," Williams said, "is that everybody contributed."

The Rockets were full of blanks in the second half--14 of 37 from the field, or 37.8%. Now they're full of questions, such as how they can be 1-5 at the Sports Arena the last two-plus season?

Akeem Olajuwon, their all-star center, wore tights on his left leg to aid his rehabilitation of phlebitis in the calf. He offered a fashion statement and notice that he can dominate even when he isn't completely healthy.

Strange get-up. Strange game.

The season was not 10 minutes old when Clipper Coach Don Casey had to resort to a patchwork lineup. With Joe Wolf--starting in place of holdout center Benoit Benjamin--on the bench after three fouls, the Clippers went with their B team: Tom Garrick and McKinney at guard, Young at forward and Ken Bannister at center. Ken Norman was the only remaining starter.

The Clippers stayed with the Rockets for much of the first half. Houston built a 10-point lead with 5:45 to play in the second quarter, a cushion that eventually reached 14, 55-41, with 1:35 left. It was 11 at halftime, 57-46.

"We didn't have a center and Charles didn't play in the second half," said Williams, whose 16 points supported 24 by Norman and 19 by Young. "In the first half, they went up by 13 and I think they thought we would die. But we're not the old Clippers."

Not through Game 1, at least.

Clipper Notes

Although none of the parties involved will comment publicly, all indications are that the Clippers and Benoit Benjamin are far apart in their negotiations. One source close to Benjamin claims the Clippers have changed their base offer by $500,000 from the apparent agreement reached just after returning from Italy, dropping the guaranteed money below the $1-million mark. That's what he earned last season, so members of the self-named Team Benjamin filed a grievance Friday with the National Basketball Players Assn. to have an arbitrator intervene. Clipper attorney Bob Platt says the filing has "absolutely no merit." He declined further comment.

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