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Close, but No Cigar Again for Clippers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Fitch was so angry, he wanted to take Eric Piatkowski over his knee.

“I was ready to spank him,” said the Clipper coach of his sizzling guard.

What had Piatkowski done that was so wrong?

He had dribbled down the court with more than three minutes to play and his club behind by six points, stopped five feet behind the three-point line and launched a ill-advised shot that missed badly.

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So?

Isn’t that Clipper ball?

Not any more. Certainly not for Piatkowski.

His brief lapse was one of the few mistakes he made in another exceptional night for the guard whose game seems to be improving dramatically with each passing day.

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Friday night, he had 22 points in 45 minutes as the Clippers battled evenly with the Phoenix Suns until the closing minutes before losing, 104-99, in front of a Sports Arena crowd of 9,759.

That’s why Fitch was so angry. His team is so close to success now, only a mistake here or there away from victory. The Clippers, whose progress once could be compared to the speed of a glacier, are suddenly improving with the speed of a fastbreak.

Suddenly teams such as the Suns, third in the Pacific Division, and the Seattle SuperSonics, the division leaders, are leaving the Sports Arena with sweat on their brows instead of smiles on their faces.

It all seemed to start with the trade that brought Isaac Austin from the Miami Heat on Feb. 19. That not only gave the Clippers a force in the middle, but gave Piatkowski confidence that he could launch his three-point shots without fear of being yanked from the lineup.

And while the one that angered Fitch missed badly, he still hit five of nine from beyond the three-point line.

With just over two minutes to play, the Suns had a four-point lead. Then they kept possession of the ball for nearly 50 seconds with two big rebounds, one of them a slap out past midcourt by Danny Manning that Fitch protested long and loud to the officials, maintaining it was a punch rather than a slap.

But Phoenix’s Jason Kidd provided the punch, pumping in a outside shot to put the Suns on top, 100-94.

Rodney Rogers responded at the other end, taking a pass from Austin and lofting in a three-point basket to cut the Phoenix margin in half with 53.1 seconds to play.

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When the Suns missed a shot at the other end, Rogers came down with the ball in his hands and Antonio McDyess on his back. The whistle sounded and Rogers made both free throws to cut the Phoenix lead to one, 100-99, with 25.1 seconds.

But Phoenix responded at the other free-throw line nine seconds to play when Derrick Martin fouled Kidd. It was Kidd’s only trip to the line all night, but the two free throws he made may have been the most important of his 15 points because they left the Clippers in need of a three-pointer with 14.4 seconds to play.

Martin, guarded by Steve Nash, missed and Nash closed out the scoring at the other end with two successful free throws.

Austin had another good night for the Clippers with a game-high 24 points and eight rebounds. Rogers was the Clippers’ leading rebounder with nine.

For Phoenix, McDyess was the high scorer with 22 on a night when the Suns shot 55.4%.

“It’s just going to take patience and poise,” said Fitch, whose team fell to 12-45. “This team has to learn that to become a great team they have to play the last five minutes different from the rest of the game.”

It has taken three quarters of a season and a major trade, but, at last, it appears that they may indeed be learning.


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