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Clippers Win Easy

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Clippers exercised their 1st Amendment rights to free speech Sunday without embarrassing themselves or their community.

They also managed to play a solid 48 minutes of basketball, shredding the Denver Nuggets during a 22-point romp that left only one question at game’s end: Where was that poised play last week when it counted?

“If anything, this was one of our best games of the season,” center Michael Olowokandi said of the Clippers’ 97-75 victory over the Nuggets before a sellout crowd of 18,964 at Staples Center.

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“It was a real team effort. Everything was going for us tonight.”

Olowokandi scored 23 points, took six rebounds, blocked six shots and had one very important face-to-face meeting with General Manager Elgin Baylor in the locker room after the game. Olowokandi made critical comments last week about his lack of a contract for next season and Baylor fined him $50,000.

When he met with reporters after a short conversation with Baylor, Olowokandi seemed more at ease than he has been in several days. He even offered an apology for his remarks, which followed a loss Wednesday to the Utah Jazz that all but eliminated the Clippers from the playoff race.

“What I said maybe was out of line,” he said Sunday. “I was very frustrated. Maybe I could have handled it differently.”

After missing 13 of 15 shots and scoring only seven points against the Jazz, Olowokandi vented. He said his uncertainty over his contract status for next season was beginning to have an impact on the team’s play. He said he was speaking for all his teammates, who were as uncertain about management’s commitment to building a consistent winner.

Olowokandi was still steamed about the fine and has considered appealing it, but he stowed the angry-young-man routine Sunday and helped the Clippers end a three-game losing streak.

The Clippers also moved within a game of the .500 mark at 38-39. With five games remaining, the franchise’s second winning record since relocating from San Diego in 1984 is still possible.

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“We still have some goals we want to accomplish, and a winning record is one of them,” Olowokandi said.

Coach Alvin Gentry gathered his players around him before Saturday’s practice and delivered a simple message. In short, he said it was time for the players to forget about their frustrations over missing the playoffs. They also should put thoughts of contracts and who might or might not be on the team next season out of their minds.

The Clippers certainly played as if they were living in the moment Sunday against the overmatched Nuggets (24-52). They often passed up open shots to find a teammate who was stationed closer to the basket. When a play or a call didn’t go their way, they ran to the other end of the court without complaint.

“We went out of our way, sometimes to a fault, to make the extra pass,” Gentry said. “Everyone made an extra effort to be unselfish.... We don’t have to play under any pressure at all now. We’re not talking about wins and losses now. We’re talking about playing and competing.”

Gentry acknowledged that perhaps he was to blame for some of the pressure placed on his inexperienced team. The more he spoke of the playoffs, the more his players felt the heat. He admitted it might have been a mistake on his part.

“I thought being in the playoff race and talking about it should have been a good thing,” he said. “If I had it to do over again, I’d approach it differently.”

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