Those rampaging Clippers, who recently have made an impressive and surprising stab at reaching the playoffs, were dealt a possibly fatal setback Saturday night, losing to the Golden State Warriors, 107-106, in a game that Coach Don Chaney and most of his players thought they would certainly win.
If Norm Nixon's 15-foot potential game-winning jump shot in the final seconds had bounced in instead of out after banking off the glass, the Clippers' playoff hopes would have moved up a notch from slim to possible.
As it stands now, the Clippers are barely standing. They must win each of their remaining four games--against Denver, Portland, Dallas and Phoenix--and hope fading San Antonio loses its three remaining games.
After winning four straight games in the last week to vault back into the playoff picture, even the most skeptical of Clipper players began believing it was possible. Disbelief returned Saturday night after the Warriors, playing without leading scorer Purvis Short and guard Chris Mullin and with a hobbled Larry Smith, built a 13-point fourth-quarter lead before holding on to win.
"It kills us," Nixon said. "I don't think San Antonio wants to make the playoffs. They'd probably rather be in the (draft) lottery. But we can't count on them losing all three, and we now have to win all ours."
If the Clippers underestimated the last-place Warriors (29-50), it wasn't the first time. Golden State dominated the Clippers this season, winning five of the six games. While the Clippers realized the importance of Saturdy night's game, Chaney admitted afterward that they may have been looking beyond the Warriors.
"In the NBA, they say nothing is for sure," Chaney said. "We approached this game as if we had already won it. I counted (on) this one. They were shorthanded, and we had something to play for. Taking all that into account, I thought we'd win for sure."
For three and a half quarters, it could have appeared to anyone in the Sports Arena crowd of 10,832 that the Warriors were the team with something to play for. Golden State outshot, outrebounded and noticeably outhustled the Clippers and was able to maintain a seven-point lead with 2:30 left.
That, however, was when the Clippers were awakened from their slumber. Led by Nixon, they went on a 10-2 spurt that gave them a 106-105 lead with 32 seconds left.
Things looked promising for the Clippers after Warrior center Joe Barry Carroll missed a short hook with 17 seconds left, but Larry Smith beat Clipper players to the rebound and was fouled by Marques Johnson.
Smith, only a 48.6% free-throw shooter who was playing with a sprained left ankle, sank both foul shots with 14 seconds left to give Golden State a 107-106 lead.
The crowd was on its feet after the subsequent Clipper timeout, anticipating the potential game-winning shot. Even though Nixon had scored 15 of his game-high 28 points in the fourth quarter, the Clippers wanted to go to forward Cedric Maxwell, an expert at drawing fouls, for the last shot.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, the Warriors guessed that Maxwell, who had 22 points, was the man. When Johnson lobbed the ball to Maxwell about 12 feet from the basket, two Warriors smothered him. Maxwell wisely passed to Nixon at the top of the key with five seconds left.
Nixon dribbled to his left and pulled up over Eric (Sleepy) Floyd for the jumper. But just as Nixon was about to release the ball, Carroll came from behind Floyd and stuck his long arm out in hopes of bothering Nixon.
"That put a hitch in my shot, when Joe Barry jumped behind Sleepy," Nixon said. "I had to change the shot."
At first, Nixon said, he wasn't going to attempt a bank shot. But Carroll changed those plans.
"Even though I had to bank it, I still thought it was going in after I released it," Nixon said.
Realistically, the Clippers' playoff hopes fell through at precisely the same time that Nixon's shot fell out.
"For us to have a legitimate shot, we had to win this game," Maxwell said. "We're still mathematically in it, but really, it looks bad. We had belief, but then somebody threw a dagger at us. That'll stop your believing. No Virginia, there is no Santa Claus."
Chaney is a little more optimistic. But he's the coach, so he has to recite the cliches applicable in this situation.
"Now, we're against the wall," he said. "We got to win every one. We've always been treading water. But as long as we're alive, we'll continue to battle. We can't fold up the tent now. The only difference now is that we put pressure on ourselves."
Golden State, going nowhere, had no pressure Saturday night. And the Warriors came up with one of their best performances of another dismal season in posting the victory.
Greg Ballard, starting in place of Short, scored 21 points. Ballard, averaging only 8.6 points, made 9 of 15 shots and had 9 rebounds.
The Clippers are off until Wednesday night, when they play host to Denver at the Sports Arena. . . . Should the Clippers qualify for the playoffs, guard Junior Bridgeman might be reactivated. Bridgeman has been on the injured list since early March with a partially torn ligament in his right thumb, but he has begun light workouts with the team. . . . Rory White, who missed the last two games with the flu, played Saturday night despite feeling ill.