CHARLOTTE, N.C. — They said it was a must-win game on a make-or-break trip, and the Clippers accomplished a goal Friday night in a 102-93 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats in front of 17,103 fans at Charlotte Bobcats Arena.
After playing well in stretches in an emotional loss in their previous game, the Clippers overcame another slow start and pulled away in the third quarter against the injury-weakened Bobcats, ending a losing streak at five games and improving to 1-2 on a six-game, 10-day trip.
"This game was a pivotal game for us," said Coach Mike Dunleavy, whose team made 50% of its field-goal attempts. "We had to have this win. We have to get wins on this road trip."
Coach Bernie Bickerstaff figured the undermanned Bobcats wouldn't fare well inside playing man-to-man defense without center Emeka Okafor and power forward Sean May. Bickerstaff went with a small lineup, Charlotte played a lot of zone defense and hoped for the best.
That was fine with the Clippers, who ran their zone offense well and got the ball to Tim Thomas often. Thomas found holes in Charlotte's zone and delivered his best performance with the Clippers, scoring 24 points on nine-for-12 shooting, including five three-pointers in eight attempts. Thomas also had six rebounds and six assists, and his long-range shooting helped to open things inside for Elton Brand.
Coming off a season-high 37 points in Wednesday's loss to Houston, Brand had 19 points and 10 rebounds -- his fourth consecutive double-double.
"When you're out some people, it's tough playing against a team like the Clippers," said Charlotte point guard Raymond Felton, who scored 18 points. "They've got Elton Brand and Chris Kaman. Tim Thomas was hitting his jumper tonight. It was tough."
Corey Maggette played a key role in the offense (he repeatedly penetrated the zone and had five assists), and was among six Clippers in double figures. Moreover, Sam Cassell, who sat out the first two games of the trip because of an abdominal injury, returned to the lineup and provided a boost off the bench, scoring 11 points with four assists in 20 minutes.
The Clippers (30-35) did what they had to do against Charlotte (24-42), players said, and must keep it going with the race tight for the final Western Conference playoff berth and only 17 games remaining.
"This thing is coming down the stretch, so we needed this, it really was a must-win game," Brand said. "Not that they're not a good team, we know that they play hard, but we felt that this was a game we should win.
"They packed it in with a zone. Tim Thomas was out there open and he knocked them down. It was great."
Brand scored nine points as the Clippers outscored Charlotte, 19-5, over the last 7 minutes 37 seconds of the third quarter, turning a 61-60 deficit into a 79-66 lead to start the fourth. The Clippers limited the Bobcats to two field goals in the final 7:52 of the third, and extended their lead to 18 points in the fourth.
The Bobcats shot 68.4% from the field in the first quarter and had a nine-point lead. They made only 30% of their attempts in the second half, however, and finished at 41% overall, which pleased Dunleavy.
"I thought our guys did a great job of staying strong," he said. "We didn't get off to a very good start, so we went to our bench.
"We got a big lift from Tim Thomas. He kept us around until we got our bearings about us and executed better and defended better."