Coach Gene Shue has done a marvelous job rebuilding the Clippers from the ruins of last season's 12-70 record.
The Clippers, however, have a long way to go before they can beat elite National Basketball Assn. teams such as the Boston Celtics.
The Clippers had the Celtics on the ropes for 3 1/2 quarters, but they couldn't hold on as the Celtics came back to hand the Clippers a 106-97 loss Saturday night before a sellout crowd of 15,167 at the Sports Arena.
Larry Bird scored 28 points and Dennis Johnson added 24 as the Celtics (16-8) won their fifth straight game dating back to a 115-114 loss to the Lakers on Dec. 11 in Boston.
"The Clipper teams of old would almost have laid down," Johnson said. "But they don't do that anymore. They take it at you."
The Clippers made it close despite shooting only 35.1% from the floor, making 39 of 111 shots.
The Celtics, taking 30 fewer shots, made 38 of 81 (46.9%).
The Clippers led, 87-85, early in the final quarter. However, the Celtics scored 14 unanswered points on their way to a 26-6 run to take command of the game.
The Clippers (8-15), who have lost three straight for the first time this season, shot themselves out of the game in the final period, missing 12 of their first 15 shots in the fourth quarter. The Clippers shot just 28% in the final period, hitting 7 of 27 shots, while Boston shot 60% (9-15). The Celtics outscored the Clippers, 32-16, in the fourth quarter.
Boston seemed to pick up the intensity level in the fourth quarter.
Kevin McHale scored 9 of his 17 points in the fourth period, and Bird and Robert Parish had 7 points apiece in the fourth quarter. Parish also had 8 of his 14 rebounds in the final quarter and Bird passed off 5 assists in the quarter.
"We started to play basketball in the final quarter, which we weren't doing in the first half," Parish said. "We buckled down and did a much better job on defense.
"Teams aren't afraid of us anymore. The Clippers played with a lot more confidence that they did last season."
Said Bird: "I think our intensity level hasn't been as high as it should be, and it's our problem. In the first half, we weren't boxing out on the boards and we paid for it. Benoit (Benjamin) was awesome at the beginning of the game.
"We made the playoffs 10 games into the season, but we don't have a lock on the finals."
Said Celtic Coach K.C. Jones: "We had one of those nights when we had gloves on our hands. Our bench did a better job than the starters. It may have been the plane ride, or no nap this afternoon. We didn't get in until 9 last night.
"The Clippers have some good talent. Quintin Dailey is a piece of work. (Michael) Cage and (Mike) Woodson can play, and they've got a guy who can coach like heck in Gene Shue."
Dailey came off the bench to score 23 points to lead the Clippers, and Reggie Williams added 19 points.
Cage matched his career high with 23 rebounds, including 17 in the first half. Cage had 14 offensive rebounds. He also had 14 points.
"It was definitely encouraging," Cage said. "We're still a struggling team and we're still trying to establish ourselves."
Benjamin had 10 points, 10 rebounds and 4 blocked shots.
Shue was pleased with the way the Clippers hung with the Celtics.
"I thought we really played an excellent game all night long," Shue said. "It wasn't only the last quarter that did us in. We shot 31% in the first half.
"In the fourth quarter the Celtics, as they often do, blew us out. I was very pleased with the way we played. Offensively, we're not a great team. We're not consistent inside and outside.
"The Celtics are a great team. They just keep coming at you and they're very difficult to contain. With a better offense, we could have had control of the game. We really played as well as we could play."
Said Dailey: "We played as well as we could play. And the Celtics raised the level of play in the fourth quarter."
Bird had a miserable first quarter, hitting just 1 of 5 shots from the floor, including an airball with 15 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Clippers, who led, 21-17, at the end of the first quarter, put Woodson on Bird. And it seemed to work as Bird couldn't get on track, scoring just two points in the first quarter. Cage guarded Parish, and Benjamin was assigned to guard McHale.
The Clippers, who have often been a plodding offensive team this season, ran their break like the Lakers during an 8-0 blitz in the first quarter.
Trailing 10-7, the Clippers outscored the Celtics, 12-2, to take a 19-12 lead with 3:02 left in the first quarter.
Cage picked up a technical foul with 9:47 left in the first half when he had to be held back by his teammates from going after Celtic forward Fred Roberts. Roberts had come to the defense of teammate Dirk Minniefield, who had poked Cage in the eye.
Boston played so poorly in the first quarter that Jones decided to give all his starters a rest early in the second period and went to the bench, using reserves Darren Daye, Roberts, Mark Acres, Jerry Sichting and Minniefield.