Clippers Find Bench in Loss at End of Road

TIMES STAFF WRITER

We interrupt this dynasty in the making for a flashback, Clipper style.

From days of old comes a blowout, on the road and, for all intents and purposes, a double-digit loss. Thanks to the second team, the Clippers avoided the latter just in time to keep their streak alive of not having lost by 10 points or more since Dec. 1, but that's the only victory to claim Saturday night. The win that mattered most, the game itself, belonged to the Chicago Bulls, 117-111, at Chicago Stadium.

A six-point loss?

Only on paper.

"It proves our bench is better than their bench," Clipper forward Charles Smith said.

Starter against starter, the Bulls led by 30 in the second quarter, originally at 63-33, by which time the Chicago backcourt of Michael Jordan and John Paxson had 29 on their own.

How this one slipped into the itinerary is anyone's guess. The Clippers, who opened what still has to be considered a wildly successful eight-game trip with a 5-2 record, took the two losses by four points to Detroit and one to New York in overtime.

But it is the one that was anything but symbolic of recent Clipper fortune that they will return home with today.

"We jumped on them and made them work," said Jordan, who finished with 28 points and 10 assists. "We let them think about home. We let them think about going back to L.A., especially when it's so cold here."

The Clippers took advantage of a similar situation Dec. 26, trouncing Chicago, 120-96, at the Sports Arena in the Bulls' final stop of a seven-game Western swing. Carbon-copy result, just a different winner.

In the rematch, with the Bulls shooting 69.8% in the first two quarters and the Clippers looking like a textbook case of road weary, the hosts were ahead at halftime, 68-41. Chicago had a 37-point first quarter, the best start against the Clippers this season.

It didn't get much better in the third quarter for the Clippers, who pulled only as close as 21, 94-73. The starters were out, and no one seemed to mind.

"No," said Ron Harper, who scored 10 points, his lowest output since the Dec. 1 loss at Phoenix. "I was happy. I was three steps slow and had no legs."

So Coach Don Casey looked down the bench and found fresh bodies, which wasn't hard to do now that the Clippers have settled into an eight-man rotation on the trip. He left it to Michael Young, David Rivers, Jeff Martin, Joe Wolf and Benoit Benjamin to make it look good on paper.

"I was very surprised how poised they were," Casey said. "It wasn't a relaxing situation for us. We were fighting for respectability on the scoreboard. We've had days of 25- and 30-point losses and didn't want that. We didn't think single digits, though."

But that's exactly what they got. The same five played the entire fourth quarter and rallied the Clippers within 13, 111-98, when Wolf hit a six-foot hook with 4:03 remaining. Casey had Harper and Smith and Danny Manning, scorers all, on the bench, but stayed with the same lineup.

"We were talking about it," the coach said. "Charles was stretching. But the first thing we said was, 'If they put their starters back in, we'll stick with you because you got us back in it.' We didn't want mass substitution."

That's why Joe Wolf got 32 minutes and Smith went 25. Why Martin, growing in stature with each game, had 24 minutes and Harper played 27. Why Young went 16 minutes compared to Manning's 21.

They took advantage of the opportunity, too. Wolf had 17 points, tying Gary Grant for tops among Clippers, and 11 rebounds, equaling Chicago's Scottie Pippen for game-high honors. Young hit six of nine shots for 15 points. Rivers ran the team to 58% accuracy in the fourth quarter.

And as for Benjamin being the lone starter kept in and playing 41 minutes?

Just call it exercise class.

"We were just going to work him until he dropped," Casey said.

The only thing that dropped was the Chicago lead, far enough that Coach Phil Jackson was prompted to put Jordan and Bill Cartwright back in. The Clippers got as close as 117-111 on Young's layup with 16.3 seconds left, but there would be no miracles. The Clippers already had used their ration of improbability in the previous days.

Clipper Notes

It's not the healthiest bunch returning today. Charles Smith is still bothered by a sore big right toe that sometimes forces him to run awkwardly. Tom Garrick, who missed the fourth game of the season with a sprained right knee, now has a badly bruised left knee, the condition of which worsened from Friday to Saturday. Indications are, however, that Ken Norman will return Tuesday against Charlotte after missing seven games of the trip, although no decision will be made until at least today and possibly even just before game time. The Clippers want him to sit out as long as necessary to heal a strained groin rather than having it nag for a long time.

The San Diego or Los Angeles Clippers have never won four road games in a row. No records were immediately available from their days as the Buffalo Braves. . . . The Bulls set a club record with their 13th consecutive home win. . . . The Clippers had another solid fourth-quarter defensive effort to get close, holding Chicago to 18 points in the final 12 minutes.

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