Third Quarter Takes Air Out of Clipper Sails

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Doc Rivers' math was off, but his logic was right on.

"We made a run and beat them in three of the quarters," the Clipper guard said. "But we stunk in one of them."

But that quarter, the third, was enough to propel the Houston Rockets to a 100-92 victory over the Clippers Tuesday night at the Summit.

The Clippers also lost the first quarter, 23-21. But they made that up and led at halftime, 45-44.

Then they were blitzed during the third quarter and couldn't make that up despite a fourth-quarter charge.

Winners of eight in a row at home and 11 of 15 overall since Rudy Tomjanovich replaced Don Chaney as coach, the Rockets took the third quarter, 36-15. The game was decided at the outset of the second half, however, as Houston opened with a 17-2 run for a 61-47 lead. Nine of the points came on three-point baskets or three-point plays by Vernon Maxwell, who finished with 20 points, and 11 via fast breaks.

The Rockets weren't finished. Their rally to begin the third quarter extended to 26-6, good for a 70-51 lead.

How bad was it for the Clippers?

"I didn't have enough timeouts," Coach Larry Brown said. "I guess that's how you'd describe it."

Said Rivers: "The third quarter was awful."

More so because it came when the Clippers had played well enough for a one-point lead in a game Tomjanovich called his team's most important of the season.

"We had so much going for us going into the second half," Brown said. "When you get only two free throws and are shooting 44% (during the first half) and are up by one on the road, you've got to be pleased.

"Then we came out--this seems to me typical of a lot of games we've had--in the third quarter and let them dictate the game. They were terrific. . . . We have to show a lot more poise than that."

Danny Manning, who led the Clippers with 28 points and 14 rebounds, said: "We didn't come out and do things good teams do when they get down."

The Clippers' biggest deficit was 86-62 with 9:34 to play during the fourth quarter, but they regrouped enough to make the final score respectable. A 14-2 run in 3:42 brought them within 92-82 with 3:09 remaining.

They got as close as 95-89 with 47 seconds to play. But the Rockets ended any comeback hopes by not giving up another Clipper basket until Gary Grant's three-pointer with 19 seconds to play made the score 98-92.

The third quarter was a capsulized version of the Rockets' play of late, which has pushed them half a game ahead of Seattle for sixth place in the Western Conference.

"We went into the game wanting to win so badly we forgot what kind of team we are," Houston's Kenny Smith said. "We passed up some open shots early. Then we played our type of basketball.

"We have been playing real aggressive and real hard. The first half, we didn't do that. We were too tentative and second-guessing our own shots. Then we put it together."

The Rockets obviously agreed with their coach's sentiment on this being the most important game of the season. It was at home against a team chasing them for a playoff berth.

They had other motivation, real or imagined.

"I heard Coach Brown say this game was the biggest game in Clipper history," Smith said. "And we beat them in it. That's very encouraging."

No one could recall Brown having said that. But he left no doubt that it was important.

"A lot of things concern me more than how we play in a certain quarter of a certain game," Brown said. "But when it's in an important game, we have to step forward. Hopefully, we'll learn from that, because this was like a playoff game in my mind."

The Rockets will play at the Sports Arena March 26 in a game that will decide the season series, Houston now holding a 2-1 lead.

"We have to beat them at home," Rivers said. "We have to."

Clipper Notes

Doc Rivers needed five stitches to close a cut on the right side of his forehead, the result of being elbowed during the second quarter. . . . Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon had 21 points, 18 rebounds and five blocks.

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