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Clippers in a Funk

Times Staff Writer

Grumbling fans crowding the exits well before the final buzzer sounded said it Sunday afternoon at Staples Center. Weary looks on the players’ faces said it in the locker room. Hushed tones from the coach said it in the interview room.

No one actually spoke the words, but after the Clippers squandered a 15-point third-quarter lead and dropped an 84-78 victory into the laps of the eager and thankful Seattle SuperSonics, one thing is crystal clear.

The Clippers are in trouble.

Certainly, there’s a long way to go this season. Seventy-two games, in fact, for the Clippers to get their act together and prove themselves worthy of so much preseason hype and glory. A winning record is still possible. So is a playoff berth.

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After 10 games, there’s little reason to cheer them, however. The Clippers have a 3-7 record, including a 1-4 mark at Staples Center.

Instead of running, jumping, dunking, smiling and laughing all the way to a victory, as they so often did last season, the Clippers are a dour bunch of young fellows these days. Their margin for error, as exposed by the SuperSonics in the fourth quarter Sunday, is zero.

“We’ve got to right the ship soon,” forward Elton Brand said after scoring 19 points and taking 16 rebounds. “It’s still early, but the Western Conference is so tough and the Pacific Division is so tough. We can’t fall behind.”

Too late.

The Clippers began the day with only the Lakers, struggling without Shaquille O’Neal, and Golden State, tonight’s opponent, behind them in the Pacific standings. The SuperSonics lead the Pacific with an 8-2 record.

“For the most part, I thought we played really good basketball,” Coach Alvin Gentry said, attempting to put the best possible spin on the Clippers’ third consecutive loss. “The last six or seven minutes, we couldn’t get the ball in the basket. We couldn’t get a stop.”

The Clippers built a 64-49 lead on Brand’s tip-in of an Andre Miller miss, but lost all their momentum in the final moments of the third quarter and, soon enough, the game. Seattle went on a 23-5 run that began when Desmond Mason made a jump shot with 51.6 seconds left in the third quarter and ended when Mason made one of two free throws with 3:32 remaining in the game.

The Clippers missed nine of their first 10 shots and never warmed up down the stretch. By quarter’s end, they were outscored, 30-14, largely because they made four of 24 shots (16.7%) and five of 11 free throws (45.5%).

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Seattle’s Rashard Lewis made two key baskets -- an eight-foot runner over Brand in the paint and an eight-foot jump shot over him along the left baseline -- to keep the SuperSonics ahead in the closing minutes.

The SuperSonics made 10 of 17 shots (58.8%) and seven of nine free throws (77.8%) in the fourth quarter. Mason and Gary Payton each scored 10 points in the final quarter to keep the SuperSonics rolling.

Down, 81-78, with 29.7 seconds to play, Eric Piatkowski passed up an open three-point shot and Miller missed a hurried three-pointer when no one else came open on the Clippers’ last chance at a tie. Predrag Drobnjak made two free throws and Mason one to account for the final score.

“For some reason, we’re not playing with a lot of confidence down the stretch,” Gentry said. “Maybe we’re feeling the pressure and the expectations. I just have to believe we’re a good enough team to win games like this. This is not a good time to be struggling.”

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Michael Olowokandi refused to believe the Clippers’ struggles are because of a lack of confidence. He believes there are other factors at work, particularly when things get tight late in close games.

“There was a stretch there today where we went down and took questionable shots and made some questionable decisions,” said Olowokandi, who scored eight points on two-for-five shooting and took 13 rebounds in 38 minutes.

“Against a team like that [Seattle], you will get punished for it. I don’t know about a lack of confidence. We made some questionable decisions. There was nothing in particular, but everyone was at fault.”


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