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Clippers’ Comeback Falls Short

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Clippers limped into Utah Thursday morning a battered and bruised team, and beaten wasn’t far behind.

With Doc Rivers home nursing a sprained ankle, Ron Harper on the court but hampered by a sprained hand and Charles Smith out there only as long as a watch allowed, they fell behind by 19 points in the second quarter.

But a game that at first was uglier than the Clippers’ bruises was upgraded in the second half when they took the lead, only to falter against the Utah Jazz, 123-115, at the Delta Center.

Today, the Clippers are in fair condition--losers of four of their last five games to fall to 15-14, but also boosted by the knowledge of a second huge comeback against the first-place team in the Midwest Division.

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On Dec. 13 at the Sports Arena, the Clippers also trailed by 19 points at halftime, but they won in overtime in the most impressive showing of an eight-game streak. This time, the Jazz won a sprint, taking the no-defense-allowed fourth quarter, 43-40, when Karl Malone scored 15 of his 23 points and John Stockton had 10 of the 17 assists that went with his 27 points.

“In the fourth quarter, great players rise to the occasion, and great players make the plays,” Clipper Coach Mike Schuler said. “That’s what this league is all about.”

Foremost in Schuler’s mind was a three-point jump shot with 2:53 left by Stockton that put Utah ahead, 108-100. The Jazz had led, 99-95, moments earlier, but Stockton’s shot provided the final cushion.

The Clippers, who went on a 21-0 charge at the end of the second quarter and beginning of the third to come back, could not respond. They had gotten this far on resiliency and bandages, but time ran out on son of comeback.

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The clock wasn’t on their side to begin with, not as far as Smith’s cameo appearances were concerned. Schuler several times had to pull Smith out just as he hit stride. Doctors have said Smith could play 30 minutes per game in back-to-back situations, so 30 minutes it is.

Frustrating--that it is, too.

“Just sitting on the bench and watching what goes on, it’s disappointing to play with minute restrictions,” Smith said. “The knee is getting better, but I’d love to play 35, 40 minutes a game.”

In the 29 minutes he got against the Jazz, Smith contributed 30 points on 10-of-17 shooting, and he had seven rebounds. The thought of what could be, if time was dictated by play and not the precautions of rehabilitation, has crossed his mind.

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“There have been a few games,” he said. “When we played Golden State at home, I know if I played more than 23 minutes we would have won. Who’s to say for sure, but I felt the same thing tonight. Karl was in foul trouble, so I could have been out there doing the same thing, only longer.”

The Clippers would like to add to that statement: what if Rivers had played? Or if Harper had not tried to out-macho Ken Norman after practice Monday in a contest to see who could dunk over the other, and Harper’s wrist lost the defensive battle against the ball thrown down by Norman?

They are questions that remain unanswered, outside the Clipper locker room at least.

Clipper Notes

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Trainer Keith Jones said Doc Rivers is “probable to questionable” for Saturday’s game against Philadelphia at the Sports Arena. . . . Ron Harper said his right hand hurts every time he moves it above his head--in other words most of the times he shoots or grabs a rebound. In the two games since suffering the injury, he is seven for 25 from the field.


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