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PRO BASKETBALL : Learning Their Lessons : Clippers Show Improvement After 0-16 Start

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Coach George Karl of the Seattle SuperSonics bowed as he passed Clipper Coach Bill Fitch.

“Master Fitch, Master Fitch,” Karl said with a smile.

Karl might have been joking, but he genuinely admires the job Fitch has done in rejuvenating the Clippers, who have won two of three games after an 0-16 start.

“No way you want anyone to go through what they were going through,” Karl said. “I was 2-19 my rookie season in coaching (with the 1984-85 Cleveland Cavaliers). I remember winning my third game on Christmas Day. There’s not much you can do except work hard and coach hard.

“I think it’s a process of building, and every time I’ve seen them they’re doing that. They’re running the offense better and defensively they’re more solid. And I think he’s finding out about his players too. Everybody thinks you can do that in eight games in the exhibition season, but you can’t.

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“I think they’ll be a decent basketball team by the end of the year. I don’t know if that’s 15 wins or 25 wins.”

The second-oldest coach in the NBA, Fitch, 60, displayed patience with the Clippers at the start of the season.

“I think it’s a lesson that applies to most of life,” Laker Coach Del Harris said. “If you stay at doing something with effort, you’re going to improve. I think Fitch has shown a patience with them and I think they’ve shown a determination to continue to play hard through the good and bad times. If you (persevere), the good times, or better times, are close at hand. That’s what impressed me about them.

“Even when they were in the worst part of the streak, they played very hard and were giving themselves a chance to win.”

One loss away from tying the NBA record for most at the start of a season, the Clippers defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in overtime last Wednesday, 96-94. Then, playing with increased confidence, they defeated the Lakers by 25 points last Friday at the Forum.

And on Saturday, after losing to the SuperSonics by 25 points at the Tacoma Dome last month, the Clippers overcame a 14-point deficit and took Seattle to double overtime before losing at the Sports Arena, 132-127.

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The Clippers earned respect by playing well against Seattle, which had the NBA’s best record last season. Accustomed to being booed during their losing streak, the Clippers received several standing ovations for the gritty effort against the SuperSonics.

Fitch cautioned, however, that it’s too early to determine whether the team has improved.

“We won a couple games and people think we’ve automatically become miracle workers,” he said. “But I don’t think we were ever as bad as people made us out. People automatically think you’re just terrible when you’re 0-15. If you haven’t been in that position in the NBA, you don’t realize how easy it is.

“We have improved. Even if we lose the next 15 games, we should be better than (when) we were losing the previous 15. We’re small and we’re playing without a proven center and that’s tough to do in this league, but in losing we’ll be better.”

General Manager Elgin Baylor agreed.

“The team has played better,” he said. “In the beginning, we were a new team, a new bunch of young people who had never had the opportunity to play a lot of quality minutes and it takes a while to come together.”

The second-youngest team in the NBA and with six new players on the roster, the Clippers needed time to mesh. Most coaches determine a playing rotation by the end of training camp, but Fitch didn’t come up with his until recently.

“It took us a while to start jelling and learning each other,” guard Pooh Richardson said.

Richardson, who struggled after being traded from the Indiana Pacers to the Clippers last summer, seems more comfortable now. He averaged 10.8 points and 7.5 assists during the 16-game losing streak, but has averaged 20.3 points and 12.7 assists in the last three games.

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The Clippers also needed time to adjust after losing center Stanley Roberts, who suffered a season-ending Achilles’ tendon injury in their final home exhibition game. Guard Gary Grant, who has yet to play after undergoing knee surgery in September, joined the team in practice Monday and is expected to be activated before Christmas.

Besides injuries, the Clippers also had to deal with distractions caused by center Elmore Spencer, who apparently is having emotional problems. He walked three miles back to the team hotel after storming out of a practice at training camp, and Fitch sent him home from practice the day before the Clippers’ home opener. He didn’t allow Spencer to practice after he was late for a workout last week.

Spencer, who was expected to start in place of Roberts, then was put on the injured list last week while he receives treatment for emotional problems.

Forward Charles Outlaw, who had a career-high nine blocked shots against Seattle, said the Clippers never gave up on themselves despite losing 20 consecutive games over the last two seasons.

“We’re a team,” Outlaw said. “People don’t play with us, they just watch us. As long as we stick together, then we’re all right. If we start getting down on ourselves, then that’s not good. We stayed together through the hard times and we stayed together through the good times and we’re going to stay together all the time.”

Guard Terry Dehere said the Clippers didn’t lose their work ethic during the losing streak.

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“We kept the spirit up through the 0-16,” Dehere said. “We still came to practice after the 16th game and worked just as hard as in training camp. There wasn’t anyone dogging it or taking the day off because of the 0-16. And that’s what you’ve got to be more proud of. We came in each day and worked and we got better.”

Forward Loy Vaught, who took the losing streak hard, has helped trigger the Clipper revival by playing with increased intensity.

After scoring a career-high 30 points and getting 14 rebounds in the Clippers’ first victory, Vaught had 19 points and a season-high 15 rebounds against the Lakers. He had 20 points and 14 rebounds against the SuperSonics.

Vaught credits Fitch for the Clippers’ improvement.

“He’s been patient with us,” Vaught said. “He sits there with the videos and he gives us very detailed reports on the (opponents) so we pretty much know what’s going to happen.

“He was patient with players at first and when the time came, he had enough courage to change the lineup. So he’s shown some faith in rookies.”

The Clippers’ surge coincides with the emergence of rookie forward Lamond Murray, the team’s top draft pick. The Clippers are 2-1 since Murray replaced rookie center Matt Fish in the starting lineup.

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Tony Massenburg, who started at power forward for the first 16 games, moved to center and Vaught switched back to power forward, the position he played last season, so that Murray could play small forward.

Swingman Malik Sealy, who has started the last two games in place of Dehere, sidelined with a sprained right ankle, has also played well.

But even though the Clippers have improved, they are still more likely to challenge the Philadelphia 76ers’ all-time worst record (9-73) than they are for a playoff berth.

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