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Clippers Open Arms to Taylor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn’t discussed much by any of the Clippers, but their last seven games might have been a preview of next season’s team.

Life without Mo.

Remember Clipper media day? Power forward Maurice Taylor told everyone he was certain to leave the Clippers as a free agent next summer because owner Donald Sterling had turned down his request for a long-term contract extension.

Taylor began the season pressing, trying to show his critics that he deserved to be among the league’s top-paid players. Six games later, he was sidelined because of a sprained ligament in his left foot.

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Tonight, Taylor will return to the starting lineup when the Clippers play the Phoenix Suns at Staples Center.

And what did the Clippers learn during Taylor’s seven-game absence?

They certainly missed his offensive skills and leadership.

But they also discovered that if they play together and stay focused on defense, they can still win games.

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“No one knows what is going to happen next year in terms of who is going to be here and who’s not going to be here,” said second-year forward Brian Skinner, who emerged as an inside force with Taylor sidelined.

“In some games, everyone pretty much stepped up when he wasn’t here. But in other games, we showed that we have a lot of maturing to do. We know [Taylor] is definitely a key player. He’s a key offensive player who adds another dimension to our team.”

Coach Chris Ford gave most of Taylor’s minutes to Skinner but he also played rookie Lamar Odom at power forward when Skinner moved into the middle to replace Michael Olowokandi at center.

Without Taylor, the Clippers won three games and came close in three others. But it was clear that the team had no replacement for Taylor’s scoring in the post.

“Offensively, it was tough,” Odom said. “For obvious reasons with the double teams and me not being used to it . . . In college, I did get double-teamed a lot but in the NBA, it’s a different type of double team. Guys are more athletic and they come running at you. So, it makes it harder for you to make a move or a good pass. It’s definitely tough to get double-teamed every game.”

Before his injury, Taylor, who led the Clippers in scoring last season at 16.8 points a game, admitted he was pressing. In his first six games, he averaged 16 points, five rebounds and 1.3 assists.

After watching the Clippers play without him for two weeks, he said he realizes the team needs him to be aggressive but that he still has to work within the offense.

“I’m excited to get back out there and play,” he said.

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“I have an aggressive attitude and I know when I’m on offense I tend to be a little bit too aggressive. But, I feel that I know how to let the game come to me.”

Olowokandi will probably benefit the most from Taylor’s return. He struggled to stay out of foul trouble in his role as the team’s top inside scoring threat, averaging only nine points and fouling out three times in the seven games Taylor sat out.

“Mike suffered being the focal point of our low-post offense,” Taylor said. “When I’m in there, and I get the ball and get doubled, I can pass the ball to him sometimes for easy baskets.”

Both Olowokandi, who will go back to concentrating more on his defense and rebounding, and Skinner, who will go back to the bench, are looking forward to Taylor’s return.

“For some reason, we won at Washington and Minnesota when we didn’t have our so-called stars. We won by pulling together,” Olowokandi said. “That’s the mind frame we have to keep. Not relying on one or two guys.”

Skinner, who struggled in his last two starts at power forward, is glad he got a chance to play more but said he realizes he may be better as a key reserve.

“I like coming off the bench,” he said. “The main thing in high school and college was starting but it really doesn’t matter. I’m comfortable wherever the team has a better chance of winning.

“If that means for me coming off the bench and averaging between 20 to 30 minutes a game, that’s fine with me. There’s a lot of pressure starting. I don’t mind starting but there is a level of comfort with me coming off the bench. I’m used to it.”

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PHOENIX at CLIPPERS

7:30 p.m.

Fox Sp. Net 2

NOTES

The Clippers may be short-handed against the Suns’ backcourt.

Page 6


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