Don Chaney's tie was askew and his usually deep voice was reduced to a squeaky whisper as he sat in the Clippers' locker room late Tuesday night. Any more games like this, Chaney said, and he'll be a candidate for coaching burnout before the season is half over.
The inexplicable Clippers had just won their third straight game, beating the Portland Trail Blazers, 119-113, before a Sports Arena crowd of 4,948. And it also was the third straight game in which the Clippers had to overcome big early deficits and eke out a win in final minutes.
This pattern of slow starts and fast finishes naturally concerns Chaney. But then, that would be Chaney's order of preference if he had to choose. It is as if Clipper players try to find out just how far behind they can get before finally rolling up their sleeves and tending to matters.
"They are going to drive me to an early grave if they keep playing like this," Chaney said. "If they are doing this on purpose, I wish they would stop. But I am happy we are able to come back and win each time."
Indeed. Three games into the NBA season, the Clippers are a surprising 3-0. Even more impressive, two of the wins have come against Portland and Houston, teams expected to be the Lakers' top challengers in the Western Conference.
"We've beaten Sacramento, which is a fair team, and Houston and Portland, which are great teams," Clipper forward Marques Johnson said. "It's not like we're beating pushovers, JC teams or anything."
It is much too early to call the Clippers a challenger, but they handled Portland in the second half as if it were a junior college opponent.
As in the previous two games, the Clippers stumbled out of the gate. This time, they trailed, 11-2, two minutes into the game and by as many as 14 points late in the first half. Chaney admitted later that the Clippers were fortunate to trail by only 11 (61-50) at halftime, considering that they shot only 42% and had 11 turnovers.
But once the second half began, the Clippers played like a different team, the kind Chaney hopes to see for 48, not just 24, minutes.
They methodically sliced Portland's lead to two points entering the fourth quarter and then took the lead for good at 106-105 with 2:49 left. The Trail Blazers tried to make a late run, but clutch layups by Derek Smith and free throws by Cedric Maxwell and James Donaldson secured the win.
The second-half statistics show almost a complete reversal. The Clippers shot 58.6% and committed only three turnovers.
No one on the Clippers can account for the slow starts. But they are certain that the real Clipper team is the one that shows up in the second half, not the team that trailed Sacramento by 19 points in the second quarter of the season opener and Houston by 12 in the first quarter last Saturday.
"It was just another one of those fantastic finishes," said Smith, who led all scorers with 28 points. "I know the bad starts are giving Duck (Chaney) a headache, the players on the bench a headache and the fans one, too, but at least we send them home happy."
There weren't many Clipper fans in attendance to receive this dose of happiness. The crowd was the smallest since the Clippers moved to Los Angeles last season. But if the Clippers continue rallying in the final minutes, they may start drawing more fans.
In any event, there is some concern among players that his habit will soon cost the Clippers some games. Marques Johnson, who scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half, has said as much after all three games.
"I keep saying, we can't keep doing it," Johnson said. "But, we do it and we still win. At some point, though, we're going to run out of gas in the fourth quarter. It's funny, Duck was actually happy the other night against Houston when we trailed by only a couple points at halftime. I guess he's getting used to this."
Both Chaney and Smith tried to explain by using the domino effect. If one player starts slowly, they all do, and vice versa.
"That's both a positive and a negative thing," Chaney said. "When one guy clicks, the other four on the court pick up, too. But if one guy's down, they all are."
The Clippers were picked up in the third quarter by Johnson and in the fourth by Smith. Johnson, working mostly inside against Portland's Kiki Vandeweghe, scored 12 points in the third quarter, and Smith scored 10 of his 28 in the fourth quarter on various acrobatic moves.
Supporting characters who contributed were center James Donaldson (14 points, 13 rebounds) and point guard Franklin Edwards (17 points, 10 assists).
Johnson and others were able to limit Vandeweghe to 16 points (6 of 17 from the field). No one could stop Sam Bowie, though. He scored 23 points and had 11 rebounds.