CHICAGO — The first quarter of Saturday night's game had just ended, and Clipper Coach Don Chaney was feeling unusually good about his team's four-point lead over the Chicago Bulls.
Then, Chaney saw the disheartening sight of star forward Marques Johnson, playing with a badly bruised left knee, limping to the bench in obvious pain. Against his and a doctor's better judgment, Chaney pleaded with Johnson to play at least a little longer.
"Just give me two minutes," Chaney said.
Johnson gave it a try, but he couldn't even last a minute before spending the rest of the night with his left knee packed in ice. From that point, the Clippers' game also went into cold storage against a team that certainly seemed beatable in the early going.
Without Johnson, the Clippers simply didn't have enough to overcome the Bulls, who recorded a convincing 132-123 win before a Chicago Stadium crowd of 9,459.
"If Marques can walk or run, he'll play," Chaney said. "But he wasn't doing either too well because of the knee. No matter how much I wanted him in there, he couldn't play."
The loss of Johnson, who was kicked in the knee late in Friday night's win over New Jersey, was felt immediately. It took the Clippers 5 minutes 33 seconds before they scored a point in the second quarter and then another 2 1/2 minutes before they scored again. By the quarter's end, the Clippers had scored a mere 12 points and trailed, 64-49.
Despite a spirited third-quarter comeback, in which Chicago's lead was slashed to two points, the Clippers (12-26) could never fully recover from one of their most unproductive periods this season.
"Look at Marques and look at the second quarter," said Clipper forward Cedric Maxwell, when asked to explain the latest loss. "The second quarter is where we lost it. That's when Marques fell out and we had to rely on people we normally don't for scoring.
"It's tough enough for us on the road, but then our leading scorer goes down. It could have been different out there tonight." Instead, it was a typical Clipper loss, one in which they exerted all their energy simply to stay in the game. The few times in the second half when they came close to catching the Bulls, their offense sputtered and died.
It was in those situations, Chaney said, when the Clippers missed Johnson the most.
"That caused tremendous problems for us. We rely on Marques for offense, defense, rebounding on both ends. Also, he's our go-to guy whenever we need a basket. We didn't have that tonight."
They probably will have Johnson Monday night in Washington, when the Clippers close their seven-game trip against the Bullets.
"It's been sore all day and all night," Johnson said. "I could have kept playing if I had kept it loosened up, but you don't need to risk it. I feel I could have (made a difference). I played a quarter, and we led. I think I'll be able to go Monday."
When Chaney is forced to play his reserves, he never knows what to expect. In Friday's New Jersey win, which broke the club's five-game losing streak, the bench played a major role. Saturday, the reserves also were the major contributors--to the loss.
Clipper reserves were outscored, 35-6, in the first half. For the game, the Bulls received 67 points from the bench, the Clippers 18.
Because of the ineffectiveness of the reserves, Chaney played the starters as often as possible. Norm Nixon scored 26 points, Maxwell 21 and Rory White 20. All played nearly 40 minutes.
Orlando Woolridge led Chicago with 28 points, but it was strong performances of backup guards Quintin Dailey (20 points) and John Paxson (14 points and 6 assists) and backup center Jawaan Oldham (14 points) that made the difference.
The only two Clipper reserves who played well were Benoit Benjamin and Junior Bridgeman, but Bridgeman doesn't really count since he started the second half for Johnson.
The Clippers received little help, in particular, from forward Michael Cage and guard Franklin Edwards. Cage had no points and one rebounds, Edwards four points and four turnovers. "(The Bulls) kept throwing fresh bodies at us, and we had no one else fresh to throw out there," Maxwell said. "I'm too old to be playing 40 minutes. We've got to have more production off the bench and get Mike (Cage) into it. Otherwise, there'll be more games like this."
General Manager Carl Scheer huddled with Coach Don Chaney Saturday morning and talked about the possibility of acquiring Portland point guard Darnell Valentine without trading Norm Nixon. They agreed that they want Valentine, but Scheer said he doesn't know if he can get him. The Clippers, however, can obtain Valentine and still remain under the salary-cap restrictions. . . . The Clippers made 37 of their first 38 free throws Saturday night before finishing at 91.1% (41 of 44).