The mystery as to why Chris Wilcox has been buried on the Clipper bench for the last month only deepened Sunday night.
Unexpectedly summoned from his seat with 8 minutes 45 seconds to play, the third-year forward sparked a rally that carried the Clippers from a nine-point deficit to a 111-104 victory over the Atlanta Hawks in front of 18,306 at Staples Center.
He made all four of his shots and scored nine points during a 20-3 run that doomed the Hawks to their 19th consecutive road loss.
The Hawks, who have lost eight in a row overall and 11 of their last 12, haven’t won outside Atlanta since Dec. 10. Their 10-45 record is the NBA’s worst, and only a handful of the league’s other teams shoot worse than they do.
But they made 60.3% of their shots through three quarters and led in the fourth, 92-83, after Peja Drobnjak made a three-point shot with 9:01 to play.
Clipper Coach Mike Dunleavy decided he’d seen enough.
He called on Wilcox, who opened the season as a starter but hadn’t left the bench in eight of 13 games since he was reactivated last month after sitting out 13 games because of a lower right leg injury.
“I was surprised,” Wilcox said. “You’ve always got to be ready, and I was ready and came out and performed, did what I had to do.”
His entrance was greeted by a roar of approval from the crowd, a response that only continued to grow when, on three consecutive possessions, he scored on a tip, a resounding dunk off a pass from Elton Brand and a dunk off an alley-oop pass from rookie Lionel Chalmers, part of a 9-0 run that tied the score.
His layup with 4:23 left put the Clippers ahead to stay.
Said Dunleavy, when asked what he’d expected from Wilcox, who left the game to another ovation with 50 seconds left: “It was really what I expected from the crowd. I thought that they would be energized and maybe lift the rest of our guys, and I was hoping Wilcox could come in and be good on the boards, be a presence.
“I knew that obviously he’d be ready to go from the standpoint of the opportunity. And we got the response we wanted.”
Wilcox was happy to lend a hand.
“It’s great to be back,” he said. “I ain’t played in a while and to come back and help our team win games, that’s what I wanted to do. We came out with a win and I was successful....
“I want to win. If I’m winning, I don’t have a problem. If I’m losing and sitting on the bench, I’ve got a problem, you know what I mean? Hopefully, we can just keep it going from here and everything will work out.”
Corey Maggette scored 25 points to lead the Clippers, whose victory tightened the Western Conference playoff race, drawing them to within four games of the eighth-place Lakers.
Bobby Simmons scored 24 points. Chris Kaman had 14 points and 10 rebounds, Brand 12 and 13.
Former Laker Tyronn Lue led the Hawks with 24 points but was scoreless in the fourth quarter, when the Hawks went cold against a Clipper zone, making only 35% of their shots while the Clippers, led by Wilcox, made 60%.
“Chris really brought a great spark, great energy,” Brand said. “He was hungry, and that’s what we needed. We were playing lackadaisical.”