On the best night of Benoit Benjamin's young and mostly inauspicious National Basketball Assn. career, he might be remembered by some for a play in which he landed not-so-softly on his backside all alone underneath the basket.
In the third quarter of the Clippers' 120-112 win over the Phoenix Suns Tuesday night at the Sports Arena, the Clipper center stripped the ball from James Edwards and lumbered in for a thunderous dunk, but his crash landing drew a mixture of cheers and embarrassed laughs from the crowd of 5,451.
Graceful it wasn't.
But then neither was the Clipper win, a ragged performance that nonetheless snapped a three-game losing streak that began before the All-Star break and included two dismal setbacks to the Suns.
When Benjamin managed to stay on his size-16 feet, he did things the Clippers (19-32) rarely have seen from him during his stormy rookie season.
In 37 minutes, which used to be his weekly allotment of playing time in November, Benjamin had a season-high 20 points (making 7 of 13 shots), 15 rebounds, 6 blocked shots and 5 assists, another season-high.
"He's playing now," guard Norm Nixon said of Benjamin. "I love it. As I've said before, we go as he goes. That's a lot of pressure on him, but that's the way it is."
Benjamin's improvement continually and pleasantly surprises his teammates, who perhaps are finally becoming convinced that he can play that way consistently. No longer are Clipper players avoiding both talking and passing the ball to him.
When Marques Johnson found out that Benjamin had bettered his previous scoring high, he reached over and exchanged high-fives and slapped Benjamin on the back.
But Benjamin, low-key as usual, didn't seem overly impressed by his performance, treating it as if it was a common occurrence.
"I try not to get caught up in stats," he said. "If I'm having a good game, I know it on the court, but I don't think about it. I just went out and worked hard tonight. I knew it was important to win tonight."
The only thing that drew a strong reaction from Benjamin Tuesday was when he was asked about his pratfall on the breakaway dunk.
"What happened was that my heel came out from under me and I slipped," Benjamin said, smiling. "I thought I had hurt my ankle."
Fortunately for the Clippers, he didn't. They might not have held off the Suns without Benjamin's scoring and rebounding.
In the third quarter, when the Clippers got the Suns (20-29) down and tried to keep them there, they turned to Benjamin. He scored nine points and had eight in the quarter before Coach Don Chaney gave him a deserved rest at the start of the fourth quarter.
With Benjamin sitting on the bench, the Clippers showed they aren't totally reliant on Benjamin. Junior Bridgeman came off the bench to score 10 points. Nixon finished with 20 points, and Cedric Maxwell (16) and Rory White (16) also contributed.
The strong play of Nixon was another welcome and long-awaited sight for the Clippers. Nixon had been slumping miserably for weeks, his shooting percentage dipping to a career-low 40%. Tuesday, though, he made 7 of 15 shots from long range and led the Clippers with seven assists. The Clippers needed such a performance from Nixon because Johnson had a rare off night (12 points, 3-of-9 shooting).
Nixon said he received a pep talk from his wife, actress Debbie Allen, over the All-Star break and felt more comfortable Tuesday.
"I just remembered I have to be who I am, the player I am," Nixon said. "My wife told me that. I was at my lowest point (1 of 10 shooting) the last time Phoenix played here (Jan. 29). I've got to forget everything and just play."
The Suns, who shot 53% but had only 31 rebounds, were led by Edwards' 25 points and reserve Mike Sanders' 18. The explosive duo of Larry Nance and Walter Davis fizzled, each player scoring 12 points.
More than anything Tuesday, Chaney pointed to Benjamin's improved play as the key.
"He's not going to play at this high level consistently," Chaney said. "This was an exceptional game. But I expect him to give similar performance the rest of the season."
Minus, no doubt, the pratfall.
The NBA trading deadline is midnight Saturday, and Clipper General Manager Carl Scheer said there is only a 20% chance the club will make a trade. "I've talked to people, but we've got nothing going," Scheer said. . . . Derek Smith update: Scheer said Smith, still rehabilitating his injured left knee, will return to Los Angeles from Cincinnati today. Asked when Smith will return to action, Scheer said: "You're guess is as good as mine. I don't know anything." . . . Legal update: The NBA's $25-million suit against the Clippers for moving to Los Angeles from San Diego without permission was tentatively scheduled to begin in early March at San Diego. But it will be delayed even longer because federal court judges are on strike. . . . The Clippers play host to Portland on Thursday night. The Suns return to Phoenix and play the Lakers tonight.