LOS ANGELES (AP)—The Los Angeles Clippers couldn’t hold on to the ball in the first half, then fumbled a big lead in the second. But in the end, they refused to allow another close game to slip through their grasp.
Los Angeles committed 12 turnovers in the first half and blamed it on the game ball. Point guard Rick Brunson complained to the scorer’s table during a timeout in the first quarter that the ball was too slippery.
Referee Gary Zielinski was handed a different ball, but took it back to the table because of a league rule stipulating that a game ball cannot not be changed until halftime.
“Man, that was the most terrible ball … I’m not letting Rick Brunson pick the ball anymore,” teammate Corey Maggette said with a grin. “It was slipping all over the place—on both teams. But I think we got it under control in the second half.”
A different ball was used in the second half, but that didn’t stop the Clippers from blowing a 12-point halftime lead. Tyson Chandler’s two free throws capped a 16-5 run that put the Bulls ahead 63-62 with 2:55 left in the third quarter—their first lead since Eddy Curry’s game-opening layup.
Los Angeles took a one-point lead into the fourth quarter before the Bulls pulled ahead 75-70 with an 8-2 spurt. But Los Angeles responded with nine straight points, including an 18-footer by Brand that just beat the shot clock and gave the Clippers a 79-75 lead with 1:45 to play.
“They started missing some shots and we got some rebounds,” Maggette said. “They missed three or four easy layups, and E.B. hit some big shots for us. That was the key to the game.”
Rookie Ben Gordon’s 3-pointer reduced the margin to 79-78 with 1:28 left, but the Bulls didn’t score again.
Othella Harrington missed a 16-footer from the top of the key before Brand hit a 13-footer from the left baseline. Gordon had a chance to tie it with 9 seconds left, but his 3-point attempt bounced off the back rim. Brunson grabbed the defensive rebound, got fouled and clinched it with a pair of free throws.
The Clippers improved to 6-18 in games decided by five points or fewer, after getting burned by Mike Bibby’s buzzer-beating 22-foot jumper with 0.4 seconds left in Friday’s 113-112 loss at Sacramento.
“We stepped up the intensity, stepped up the pressure and pretty much swarmed them,” Brand said. “It feels good to win a close one. Every time we execute at the end of a game on the defensive and offensive end, we win.”
Maggette had 19 points for the Clippers (28-35), who matched last season’s win total in front of their fourth sellout crowd of the season.
Curry had 19 points and eight rebounds for the Bulls, who have lost nine of their last 10 against the Clippers and five straight in Los Angeles.
Chandler, whose draft rights were dealt from the Clippers to Chicago in the Brand trade, had five points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes after sitting out Saturday’s practice because of soreness in his back. He fouled out with 3:16 remaining.
“We have been a little complacent in afternoon games this year, but there really aren’t any excuses,” Kirk Hinrich said. “It was frustrating, but at least we were in the game at the end.”
Maggette powered the Clippers to a 51-39 halftime lead with 14 points. The Bulls missed eight of their first nine shots and finished the half at 36.4 percent—but not before Gordon’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer was upheld by referee Greg Willard after several looks at the video replay.
“It all comes down to the defensive end. We gave up 51 points in the first half, which got us in trouble,” coach Scott Skiles said. “We did pick it up after halftime, but there were just too many things to overcome.”
In their previous meeting on Nov. 13 at Chicago, the Clippers beat the Bulls after erasing a 24-point deficit—their biggest comeback victory since the franchise moved from Buffalo to San Diego for the 1978-79 season.
Marko Jaric, who helped that comeback with 17 second-half points, returned to the Clippers lineup for the first time since Feb. 12 after missing 12 games because of a stress fracture in his left foot. He lasted only 72 seconds before coming out of the game with a hip pointer in his right side.
The Clippers finished with 17 turnovers. … Brunson finished with 11 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. … Bulls rookie F Luol Deng missed his sixth straight game because of a sprained right ankle. … Chandler’s 17 points in the Nov. 13 loss to the Clippers is still a season high. … Eric Piatkowski, who has played more games for the Clippers than anyone since the team moved to Los Angeles in 1984-85 and holds the franchise career record for 3-pointers, played 14 scoreless minutes against his former club.