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Clippers Out of It From Start

Times Staff Writer

The Clippers played their 70th game of the season Monday night and still looked like a bunch of guys playing a pick-up game on their lunch breaks. They lacked shooting touch. They lacked defensive aggression. They lacked a clue.

Worse, they were so pitiful in the first half that the Houston Rockets got way ahead without needing Yao Ming for all but nine minutes en route to a 108-90 victory before a sellout crowd of 19,060 at Staples Center.

Nobody stopped by to watch Kelvin Cato throw an elbow toward Cherokee Parks’ mug -- as happened with the Rockets ahead by 28 points late in the half. Many of the fans came to see Yao, all 7 feet 5 of him, making fadeaway jump shots with the effortlessness of a point guard or patrolling the paint like the (very) big man he is.

But because the Clippers were so inept early, the Rockets could let Yao sit after picking up his second foul in the first quarter and still turn the game into a runaway by halftime.

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And to think, the Rockets played (and lost) Sunday against the Kings at Sacramento.

“In a sense, every game is a playoff game for them,” said Dennis Johnson, Clipper interim coach, of the Rockets, who moved past the Phoenix Suns in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Two days after shooting a team-record 26.3% during a loss against the Utah Jazz, the Clippers were at it again Monday against the Rockets.

The Clippers made five of 17 shots in the first quarter (29.4%) Monday and trailed, 34-18. They would improve their shooting to 39.4% by halftime, but their deficit swelled to 58-30 after Glen Rice made one of Houston’s 10 three-pointers.

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“They shot extremely well,” Johnson said. “We couldn’t recover. We tried a number of defenses. The only thing we didn’t try was a zone, but you can’t fall back into a zone when they’re shooting like that.”

James Posey led the Rockets with 23 points on eight-of-nine shooting, including five of six from beyond the three-point arc. Yao had eight points and three rebounds in 20 minutes and was never matched up against Wang Zhizhi, his countryman.

Lamar Odom had a season-best 30 points for the Clippers, losers of 14 of their last 17 games.

Perhaps the only positive development for the Clippers was the sight of Elton Brand shooting baskets before the game. Brand, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder with averages of 18.4 points and 11.2 rebounds, has been sidelined since Feb. 28 because of a stress fracture above his left ankle.

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“I’m ready to get cleared by the doctors,” he said when asked when he might return to the court. “It will be five weeks next week, and that was the original estimate. I’m itching to play. I was never going to pack it in. Even if there are only four games left, I want to play. People say to me, ‘Why rush back?’ I love to play.”

Brand is scheduled to undergo a follow-up MRI exam this weekend.

“Then we’ll know,” he said. “I’d like to win some games.”

At this point, the Clippers could use all the help they can get.

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