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Clippers aim for stretch fun, beginning with victory over Utah

Long out of the playoff hunt, they find the motivation to beat one of the Western Conference's best teams, the playoff-bound Jazz.

March 01, 2010|By Ben Bolch

The NBA playoffs, Clippers edition, are under way.

The television ratings may not be so great. No trophies will be awarded.

But a significant chunk of the Clippers' remaining games could have a surprisingly do-or-die feel for a team long out of the playoff hunt.

Or, as Clippers interim Coach Kim Hughes put it, trying to beat teams headed for the playoffs is "your whole reason for playing" with the postseason no longer a realistic possibility.

The Clippers looked plenty motivated Monday night at Staples Center during a 108-104 victory over playoff-bound Utah, though things got more than a little hairy in the final few minutes as the Clippers nearly squandered a 17-point lead.

Utah guard Deron Williams stepped to the free-throw line with the Jazz trailing, 103-101, with 16 seconds left and a chance to tie the score. He missed the first free throw. And the second.

After Clippers guard Rasual Butler made a pair of free throws, Williams threw the ball out of bounds and the Clippers made just enough free throws to seal a fourth consecutive home victory.

"It's our playoffs," said Clippers guard Baron Davis, who had 18 points and 12 assists. "This is our opportunity to grow and for other teams to say, ‘They've finally got it together.' That's what we want."

The Clippers will have plenty of additional opportunities to knock off the NBA's elite in coming weeks.

Fourteen of their final 22 games are against teams that would be in the playoffs if they started Tuesday. If it were up to Hughes, the Clippers would play teams bound for the playoffs every night "because it shows us where we stand."

They measured up well against Utah while breaking a six-game losing streak against the Jazz. Forward Drew Gooden continued his strong play since joining the Clippers, getting 19 points and 11 rebounds. Guard Eric Gordon had 24 points and center Chris Kaman added 18 points and 14 rebounds.

Davis was a game-long nuisance to Williams, blocking a couple of his shots and holding him to 13 points on five-for-15 shooting.

Beating the NBA's best teams might have other benefits besides helping the Clippers feel better about themselves. It could also set a tone for next season, when the team expects to add a healthy Blake Griffin, a lottery draft pick and possibly a marquee free agent.

And it could tell the Clippers whether their schemes are working.

"If you do compete against them and you do well, then you know the system works perhaps," Hughes said of playoff-bound teams. "But if you don't do well, then you know you need to make some changes."

Some modifications are already afoot. Hughes held what he called "a teaching session" with his players before the game because he said they were not pushing the pace to his liking. The coach said players would play fewer minutes and he would substitute more liberally to help speed the tempo.

Etc.

Forward Craig Smith did not play after suffering a strained left biceps during the first half of the Clippers' loss at Sacramento on Sunday. The injury was something of a mystery to Hughes. "I was told he couldn't come back for the second half," Hughes said, "but on tape I could never see the injury."

An MRI exam was negative.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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