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Olajuwon Isn’t Enough to Boost Rockets : Clippers: Playing for the first time since suffering an eye injury on Jan. 3, he scores 24 points and has 16 rebounds, but L.A. wins, 83-80.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Akeem Olajuwon returned to action Thursday night for the first time since early January, but he wasn’t enough to help the Houston Rockets win a game at the Sports Arena.

Instead, the Clippers won for the fourth time in seven games by defeating the Rockets, 83-80, behind 21 points and a career-high five blocked shots from Ron Harper and 17 points and 12 rebounds from Olden Polynice.

Olajuwon had 24 points and 16 rebounds in 35 minutes, nearly double the expected restriction of 15-18 minutes.

The Clippers (19-36) got their final basket with 4:22 remaining, but won the game by making nine of 12 free throws after that. Houston (32-24) had two three-point attempts after calling time out with 15 seconds left and the score 82-78, but had to settle for two free throws by Buck Johnson.

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After Danny Manning made one free throw to make it 83-80, the Rockets’ final attempt after calling a timeout with four seconds left failed when Kenny Smith passed to wide-open Vernon Maxwell on the right side, but Maxwell couldn’t get a three-point shot off in time.

Olajuwon is beginning to make a habit of big returns at the Sports Arena, also the scene of the Rockets’ 1989-90 season opener, his first game in five months because of blood clots in his left calf.

This time, Olajuwon hadn’t played since Jan. 3, the night he got hit in the eye by an elbow from Chicago’s Bill Cartwright. So the Rocket center ended up coming off the bench for the first time in his seven-year pro career.

“I’m not looking to play a big role right now,” Olajuwon said after the Rockets lost for the seventh consecutive time at the Sports Arena. “Tonight, I played a lot more minutes than I thought I would.”

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Of course, there is the little matter of Houston having won nine of their previous 11, and Larry Smith looking like anything but a substitute in compiling five games of at least 20 rebounds this month alone. The Rockets wouldn’t want to rush Olajuwon back, anyway. The way things are going all around, they especially don’t want to rush him.

“I’m going to gradually bring him back,” Coach Don Chaney said. “I don’t have a timetable that, ‘He should be back at this time.’ I’m going to let his play and the team’s performance dictate it.”

Clipper Notes

Winston Garland, who broke his left hand when it got caught in the jersey of Laker Tony Smith Feb. 1, had the cast removed Thursday and could play any time. Coach Mike Schuler had no timetable for the return of his reserve guard, preferring to wait and talk with General Manager Elgin Baylor, who was sick and missed the game. Whenever Garland is activated, a dilemma is inevitable: Which guard will go on the injured list? Center Mike Smrek is most expendable, but that would give the Clippers six guards, one more than Schuler wants. When Ron Harper returned a few weeks back, Tom Garrick went on the injured list. Now Garrick has become the backup point guard.

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With his team having failed to shoot at least 70% on free throws in 10 consecutive outings, Schuler is considering asking some players to visit a sports psychologist, figuring the Clippers’ problems at the line are more mental than anything. Nothing definite has been set up, but he has considered the idea for a while, as the team’s free-throw struggles continue. They made 17 of 25 (68%) Thursday. “I think you have to be very careful who you approach with it,” Schuler said. “If you try to send players to a psychologist, they might balk at that. I don’t know how many guys won’t like that suggestion.”

The Clippers begin a four-game trip, their only trip longer than two games the rest of the season, Saturday at Minnesota. Ken Norman, who missed Thursday’s game with a sprained left ankle, is listed as probable for the opener. . . To make room for Akeem Olajuwon on the roster, the Rockets put Matt Bullard on the injured list with tendinitis in his left knee.


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