Clippers Are Getting Big Net Gains

Times Staff Writer

Meanwhile down the hall ...

The Lakers are getting all the attention these days but Staples Center's other tenants, the Clippers, are still the one leading in the standings, by two games after Wednesday night's 90-77 rout of the New Jersey Nets.

Elton Brand scored 19 points, Sam Cassell had 17 and both got to sit out the fourth quarter as the Clippers won their third game in a row and their sixth in eight, following a 2-7 slide.

It was a horrific night for the Nets, who started a four-game trip by losing by 11 points at Utah before things got really difficult. Wednesday night they shot 38% and were never in the game, trailing by as many as 22 points.

"Sam is the so-called head of the snake," Net Coach Lawrence Frank said. "Sam is what makes this team go. With Sam, you always feel like you have a chance.

"It's no different than what we have with Jason [Kidd.] Regardless of whether he [Cassell] gets off to a good start or a bad start, he lifts his teammates' spirits up. I think it was a good example, them being down 19 at Golden State and they kept on plugging away."

The worst of the Nets was the best of them, Vince Carter. Their leading scorer at 24.6 points a game, he had three in 27 minutes Wednesday, missing eight of his nine shots and turning the ball over five times before leaving in the third quarter because of a stiff back.

"They beat us pretty good when we played them in Jersey," Coach Mike Dunleavy said, "so we knew what they were capable of....

"I think our guys know how important it is to win these types of games. They're coming into our house and we've got to defend it. For the most part, we have. A couple of times we laid an egg, but we've generally been good. Then you have to fight and claw on the road."

The Clippers had better be ready then. Seven of their next eight games are on the road.

Since Corey Maggette left, they have had trouble matching up with big backcourts and the Nets presented several scary matchups: the 6-foot-1 Cassell vs. 6-4 Kidd; 6-3 Cuttino Mobley guarding 6-7 Richard Jefferson; 6-5 Quinton Ross going against the 6-7 Carter.

Nevertheless, it was close for only seven minutes. The Nets scored their last field goal of the first quarter with 5 minutes 14 seconds left as the Clippers finished it with a 11-2 run and took control.

The Clippers led by 11 points at the half. The Nets cut it to 43-34 on Jefferson's layup 13 seconds into the third quarter but never got closer than that.

The Nets started the game seeded No. 3 in the East, but it took them a while to get going, starting 9-12 before Carter kicked it into gear.

Carter averaged 21 points in November as the Nets were 7-8, 29 in December as they were 10-4 and came in to Wednesday's game averaging 24 points in January, with the Nets at 5-5.

"Vince arguably last year was one of the top three players in the league," Frank said before the game. "We were fortunate enough to win 15 of 19 with him and he, with Jason [Kidd], engineered that attack....

"That's the nature of his personality. He's such an unselfish guy and he wanted to get everyone involved. As as team, we realized him being persistent with his attack, being aggressive, makes the game so much easier on everyone else, as opposed to being so unselfish that his other teammates are put in that position."

So you can imagine what happens when Carter isn't assertive early, or virtually comatose. He scored one point in Wednesday's first half, and it came with 3:02 left in the half and the Nets behind by seven points. He missed all three of his shots from the field and turned the ball over five more times.

In all, the Nets missed 23 of their 35 shots and were lucky to be as close as 11 points behind, 43-32, at halftime.

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