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Johnson Quietly Enjoys His Best Game of the Season

March 21, 1985|SAM McMANIS | Times Staff Writer

He sat alone in an area next to the showers in the Clippers' locker room late Wednesday night, partially hidden from the media and teammates by a wall and a cloud of mist. But on this night, it would have been more appropriate for Marques Johnson to be in the spotlight, not hiding in a corner.

After all, Johnson had just played his best overall game as a Clipper, scoring a season-high 32 points in the team's second straight victory, an impressive 121-110 decision over the Utah Jazz before a crowd of 8,360 at the Sports Arena.

Johnson's performance was what many had expected from him all season but had seen only rarely. Before Wednesday's game, Johnson had scored fewer than 10 points in four of the Clippers' last eight games and had seen his average dip to 16.1--lowest in his career.

For one night at least, Johnson could forget about his frustrating season, which has been dominated by injuries and the confirmation that he had been hospitalized in a drug rehabilitation center in 1983.

"I've been pretty down," said Johnson with a thin smile. "Basically, I've lost confidence. It's been a season of distractions. There's been the transition to a new team and a new coach, the injuries and the other stuff. It all snowballs."

Wednesday night, part of Johnson's frustrations melted because of his hot shooting. In the first half, he made all eight shot attempts and scored 17 points. He cooled off in the second half but still finished with 32 points (hitting 13 of 19 from the field).

More important, Johnson's outside shooting ability came back to him for one of the few times this season. "That's always been one of the things that gets me going," Johnson said. "If I hit the outside shot, it opens up other parts of the game for me."

When Johnson is scoring, it also takes a chunk of the offensive load off leading scorer Derek Smith and point guard Norm Nixon. Smith and Nixon each had 21 points, Nixon also contributing 13 assists. In addition, Bill Walton came off the bench to score 15 points and grab 12 rebounds in 25 minutes.

Darrell Griffith led the Jazz with 32 points, while Thurl Bailey had 20.

So, for the second straight game, the Clippers defeated a team that will be going to the playoffs. Monday night, the Clippers blitzed Detroit, 136-116.

But it didn't matter to Clipper interim Coach Don Chaney that the wins came against playoff-bound teams. Chaney just wants wins, no matter the opponent.

"It feels good to beat teams over .500, but that's not our big concern right now," he said. "What I liked tonight was that we got a little shaky in the third quarter (when the Jazz pulled within two points) but recovered enough to pull away from them."

After a 1-7 start under Chaney, the Clippers seem to be adjusting to his fast break and trapping style. Both were factors in the win over Detroit Monday night and over Utah Wednesday night.

"We're starting to establish something," Junior Bridgeman said. "We're playing the way this team likes to play. We're running and trapping and playing collectively good defense. I wish it had happened 30 games ago."

If it had, perhaps the Clippers wouldn't be 25-46 and all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. This was the first time the Clippers have won consecutive games since early January.

The Clippers held a 70-55 halftime lead over Utah and could have dominated even more. For the second straight game, the Clippers had a near flawless first half. They shot 55.6%, outrebounded the Jazz, 25-17, and commited only five turnovers.

Utah, which shot 50% in the first half but had 17 rebounds and 10 turnovers, was led by Griffith's 12 points and Mark Eaton's 10. Eaton, however, had only three rebounds. He ended the game with 10 rebounds and six blocked shots, which gave him a total of 396, breaking Elmore Smith's season record of 393.

They took it to the Jazz early, scoring eight straight points in a two minute span for a 26-14 lead. Another spurt late in the first quarter, in which the Clippers outscored the Jazz, 8-0, gave the Clippers a 37-20 advantage. By the end of the quarter, they had secured a 39-26 lead.

Johnson was the hottest Clipper in the first quarter, scoring 13 points. That was four more points than Johnson had scored in four quarters Monday against Detroit. Smith added nine points and Nixon seven plus four assists.

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