The Charlotte Hornets, replacing three injured opening-night starters with three players whose last address was the Continental Basketball Assn., were leading the Clippers by 15 points in the third quarter Thursday night.
In other words, the Clippers had the Hornets right where they wanted them.
Not much later, the Clippers also had another comeback victory, a 4-0 record in overtime, a successful start to their longest trip of the season and a new go-to guy for three-pointers, all the result of a 109-102 victory at Charlotte Coliseum.
"Piece of cake," Coach Mike Schuler deadpanned afterward. "Just like the game plan."
An upside-down cake maybe. The game shouldn't have been close in the first place, but the Clippers saved face in the end, thanks to opponent Larry Johnson and their own Danny Manning and Ron Harper.
Johnson mouthed off to referee Jake O'Donnell after a Charlotte basket and got a technical foul with 44 seconds left in regulation, poorly timed to say the least. Doc Rivers converted the free throw for the Clippers, a crucial point in a 95-95 game at the end of regulation.
"You got to know the refs in this league," Johnson said after collecting 16 points and 16 rebounds and bringing new meaning to the phrase rookie mistake. "You got to know which ones you can push and which ones you can't. Apparently, I found out the hard way."
Manning scored five of the Clippers' eight points the last 1:17 of the fourth quarter.
And Harper, who had made five of his previous 21 three-pointers coming in, took over from there. Playing in pain after spraining his right ankle at the end of regulation, he opened the five-minute extra period with a straightaway 25-footer. After the teams traded baskets, he hit from the right side, putting the Clippers ahead, 103-97.
"I wasn't looking for the threes, they were there," said Harper, who finished four of five from distance en route to 19 points, nine assists and six rebounds. "I kept going inside to Charles (Smith) and James (Edwards) and they kept throwing the ball back out. There wasn't much time left. So the third time they threw the ball back out, it was up."
The Clippers were 3-2 in overtime games last season. Their four victories this season all have been extra special in some way:
--Nov. 5. They won at the Forum for the first time in nearly 10 years.
--Dec. 6. They played the second half against Denver without Rivers, the starting point guard.
--Dec. 13. They came from 19 points down at halftime and defeated Utah, leaders of the Midwest Division, at the Sports Arena.
--Jan. 2. They start the trip, a true barometer of their playoff prospects, and the new year with another double-digit comeback.
"We pick up the pace," Manning said of the Clippers' overtime play. "We take it to another level."
They took it 17-15 this time, and now they are looking to kick it up another notch. Ahead is Atlanta, six victories better than the Hornets, who caused enough problems for starters.
Loy Vaught, a starter as recently as Dec. 17, has found his personal Siberia at the end of the bench. While the Clippers have been beaten on the boards two of their last three games, their designated rebounder has played five, eight and three minutes, respectively. Thursday, the Clippers were down in that category at halftime, 29-11, only Charles Smith had multiple rebounds against one of the league's worst teams and Vaught still didn't get in until late in the third quarter. Coach Mike Schuler said he didn't like the matchups and didn't want to take Smith or Danny Manning out of the game. Said Vaught: "It's out of my hands. I'm cool."
The Hornets were among three teams fined $10,000 and prohibited from practicing today as penalty for holding a workout on New Year's Day. League rules state home teams are not allowed to practice Jan. 1 or Christmas, but Charlotte, Houston and New York did. . . . The Clippers won here for only the second time in five tries. . . . Charlotte has lost six in a row at home and nine of 11 overall.