As always, another major breakthrough for center Benoit Benjamin directly translated into another impressive win for the suddenly streaking Clippers, who are becoming quite accustomed to both these days.
Saturday night against the Houston Rockets, whose Twin Towers of Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson had dominated the Clippers' rookie center several times this season, the Clippers needed every one of Benjamin's 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocked shots to pull out a 108-101 victory before a Sports Arena crowd of 10,086.
The Clippers' third straight win was impressive even though Olajuwon, coming off a 36-point effort Friday at San Antonio, left the game early in the second quarter with a sprained ligament on the inside of his left knee.
Olajuwon watched the rest of the game in street clothes, which meant that Sampson, his fellow Tower, had to switch to center, a position he dislikes. Sampson, who finished with 28 points and 10 rebounds, probably dislikes it even more after going against Benjamin for three quarters.
Against Olajuwon, Benjamin had scored only two points and noticeably altered his shots to avoid having them slapped right back at him. Against Sampson, though, Benjamin's timidity was replaced by aggressiveness.
"Playing like that against the super centers obviously can do nothing but help Ben's confidence," Clipper forward Cedric Maxwell said. "He's going through barrier after barrier each game and he's passing them all with flying colors. We need Ben, if we're going to make the playoffs."
If Benjamin doesn't revert back to his early-season form, the Clippers might be headed for the playoffs. They improved their record to 21-32 and, with 29 games to play, are one game behind Phoenix and a half-game behind Sacramento for the eighth Western Conference playoff spot.
"This was a big game for us," Clipper Coach Don Chaney said. "To win two in a row and come in against Houston was a test. We really wanted to win, to keep the steak going. It was just a pivotal game."
By and large, it also was a game decided in the pivot.
With the Clippers clinging to an 84-83 lead early in the fourth quarter, Chaney reinserted Benjamin, who had taken a brief rest, and quickly received the results he desired. In the next two minutes, Benjamin scored six points inside against Sampson to help the Clippers build a 96-85 lead with 6:16 left.
The strong play of Benjamin, who also had six rebounds in the fourth quarter, together with Junior Bridgeman's hot outside shooting (10 points in the fourth quarter) and the consistent play of Marques Johnson was enough to hold off the Rockets, who have the NBA's second-best home record (26-2) but are a dismal 8-16 on the road.
In addition to Benjamin's production, the Clippers received 25 points and 6 rebounds from Johnson, 15 points and 10 rebounds from Maxwell and 14 points each from Norm Nixon and Bridgeman.
"Ben once again played a tremendous game," Chaney said. "He was rushing early in the game. He was more conscious of Akeem blocking his shots. But I think he settled down in the second half, and it showed."
In the first half, Benjamin made only 2 of 8 shots. But against Sampson and 6-10 Jim Peterson in the second half, Benjamin made 7 of 8 shots.
"I can play better," said Benjamin, when asked to evaluate his performance. "I'm not really pleased with my shooting. . . . I just go out there and play."
Which is more than Benjamin could say earlier in the season.
Bridgeman, at 32 the oldest Clipper, also struggled early in the season and recently has seen his playing time drastically cut. But Chaney still goes to Bridgeman late in games when points are needed, and Saturday, at least, he delivered.
In the fourth quarter, Bridgeman made one layup and four jump shots, including a turnaround from the baseline that he seemingly hoisted out of desperation.
"(Junior) went and pulled out his bag of tricks again," Chaney said. "I've learned a lot about veterans, being one myself (in Chaney's playing days). When it comes down to the end, they respond to the pressure."
Olajuwon had 12 points and 5 rebounds before hurting his knee, and the extent of his injury is not yet known.
Eugene Osher, one of the Clippers' doctors, said Olajuwon strained a ligament on the inside of the knee. But Osher added: "I can't rule out a tear."
Olajuwon sustained the injury less than two minutes into the second quarter when he collided with teammate Robert Reid near the Rocket bench. Olajuwon limped off the court and, at halftime, was placed in an immobilizing brace. Osher recommended that Olajuwon undergo an examination in Houston to determine the damage.
But Olajuwon's injury, it seems, may have already cost the Rockets one victory, Benjamin notwithstanding.
The National Basketball Assn. trading deadline came and went Saturday night, and the Clippers did not make any deals. General Manager Carl Scheer said he was not close to making a trade. But the Clippers were talking to Phoenix about trading reserve guard Franklin Edwards. . . . Forward Michael Cage missed Saturday night's game with the flu. . . . The Clippers will play host to Washington Monday night.