What started out to be a rout turned into a thriller before the Clippers finally escaped with a 129-127 victory over the Denver Nuggets before a crowd of 7,948 at the Sports Arena Wednesday night.
The Clippers were ahead by 16 points early, down by 16 later, and battling back at the end.
Finally, with 43 seconds left, Marques Johnson found himself with the ball, looking at a two-point deficit and so much traffic under the basket that his play was going nowhere.
What to do? Johnson decided to put his head down, put the ball on the floor and take it up. The resulting three-point play put the Clippers ahead for good, 125-124.
"The play was designed to go to Derek Smith down low, but (Bill) Hanzlik shut that off," Johnson said. "I just decided to put the ball on the floor and try to create something.
"I knew we were down by two and we just needed to make something happen."
After Johnson had given the Clippers the one-point lead, Lancaster Gordon scored on an outlet pass from Norm Nixon to stretch it to three.
Then, Smith brought down a rebound of a shot missed by Mike Evans and was fouled by Hanzlik. He made one of two free throws to give the Clippers a four-point edge, but Lafayette Lever scored on a three-point basket to bring the Nuggets back within one.
With just one second left, however, Nixon hit one of two free throws to give the Clippers their final margin of victory.
"These guys are trying to make me old before my time," Clipper Coach Don Chaney said, then added a few words about Johnson.
"I'll tell you one thing about Marques Johnson," he said. "Check the record books and you will see that in the last four minutes, Marques will do something to win."
The Nuggets, who clinched the Midwest Division title Sunday night (their first title since the 1977-'78 season) didn't seem to be doing much of anything to win.
They followed a weak performance Tuesday night, when they lost to the Lakers at the Forum, 148-119, with an equally poor start Wednesday night.
The Nuggets fell behind, 21-6, early on, but behind Alex English's 20 points, they cut the deficit to 6 by halftime. English finished the night with 38.
Denver continued to fight back in the third quarter and outscored the Clippers, 27-2, in one run to take a 95-79 lead.
The Clippers later put together a streak of their own, however, scoring the last eight points of the third period and the first four points of the fourth to close within four.
It was a nip-and-tuck ballgame the rest of the way. The Clippers tied the game at 106-106 on a reverse slam by Johnson and went up by one on Johnson's free throw on the same play.
As Johnson said later, winning still means something, even though the Clippers will not be in the playoffs.
"I think the club is now evaluating the players as well as the coaching staff," he said. "We need to do what we can to finish the season on a positive note, if not for ourselves, for our coach. I think he has a chance to be back next year."
Clipper Notes The Clippers were officially eliminated from the playoffs last Sunday when Phoenix defeated Seattle, giving the Suns the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference. . . . This is the ninth straight season that the Clippers have not made the playoffs. . . . Marques Johnson, a graduate of Crenshaw High, participated in a halftime ceremony to honor this season's Crenshaw basketball team, which won the State basketball title.