LOS ANGELES (AP)—Al Thornton has only nine games left in his rookie season, although he’s been playing like a veteran for the most part since mid-January.
Thornton scored 20 of his career-high 39 points in the fourth quarter and the injury-riddled Los Angeles Clippers snapped a season-worst 10-game losing streak with a 110-97 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday night.
“It’s definitely been a grind, but it’s been fun,” Thornton said. “The most important thing is that it’s been a learning experience. I think I’ve improved a lot under Mike Dunleavy. He’s a very smart coach, from the standpoint of Xs and Os and his knowledge of the game. So I think I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Through three quarters, Los Angeles was 0-for-13 from 3-point range and the Grizzlies 0-for-10. But Thornton, the 14th overall pick in the draft out of Florida State, connected on the Clippers’ next two attempts from long range to pad their lead to 81-71 with 11 minutes remaining.
Kyle Lowry got Memphis as close as seven points on a layup with 6:17 remaining. But the Clippers responded with a 10-2 spurt, which Thornton capped with another 3-pointer to give Los Angeles a 99-84 cushion with 3:47 left.
“Al can play, but it’s definitely because of the opportunity he’s had to go out and showcase his talents,” teammate Corey Maggette said. “He came in and has played extremely well for this team. He has confidence every night he steps out on the floor.
“He’s kind of a streaky player, so you never know what you’re going to get. But you know he’s going to try to play extremely hard and get the fans involved. There’s still room for improvement, but I’m proud of him. He continues to push. I don’t think I was that good when I was a rookie,” Maggette said.
Thornton’s point total was the highest by a Clipper this season. It also equaled the record for a Clippers rookie, which was set by Tom Chambers on April 15, 1982, against Portland at San Diego and tied by Terry Cummings on March 9, 1983, against the Lakers at the Forum.
“He definitely did not look like a rookie at all,” Memphis guard Mike Conley said. “That was a great performance.”
Maggette scored 26 points and Chris Kaman had 10 points and 15 rebounds for the Clippers, who won for only the third time in 21 games after consecutive home victories over Memphis and Utah. Among the numerous Clippers sidelined by injuries were Tim Thomas (sore Achilles’) and Quinton Ross (sore left foot).
Brevin Knight had 14 points and 11 assists. It was only the second double-digit assist game by the Clippers, who have used seven players at the point guard spot this season because of Shaun Livingston’s yearlong rehab from knee surgery. Knight had 12 assists on Feb. 29 in a 110-104 loss at Denver.
“It’s nice to get back into the win column. It’s been a while,” Dunleavy said. “Our guys did a god job and they played hard. I think we took it up a notch defensively in the second half. Al had a big game, and it was important that Kaman got back in his groove.”
Rudy Gay had 23 points and Lowry added 20 off the bench for the Grizzlies, who are 6-23 since beating the Clippers in overtime at home on Jan. 26.
Coming off a stunning 117-114 upset win in this same building over the Lakers on Friday night, Memphis missed eight of its first nine shots against the Clippers and fell behind by 10 points. The Grizzlies took their first lead, 26-24, on Gay’s dunk with 9:51 left in the second quarter, but Los Angeles went back in front 47-43 by halftime.
“It is a big letdown,” Grizzlies forward Hakim Warrick said. “We got a big win on the road last night, and then came out with this effort tonight. It was very disappointing.”
All-Star F Elton Brand, trying desperately to savage something out of this dreadful season for himself and the Clippers, said he hopes to play sometime during the team’s two-game trip through Seattle and Sacramento. Brand, who tore his left Achilles’ tendon Aug. 3 during a daily workout, and underwent surgery four days later, has been cleared to play by the medical staff—but he’s only had one full-court practice with the team because of a lack of healthy players. “We’ll have a better feel for it Monday,” he said of when he’ll play his first game. … Addressing speculation that he will opt out of his contract, Brand said: “I’m planning to be a part of this team next year. I’m not saying I’m not opting out or am opting out. But negotiation-wise, as long as everything is fair, I expect to be back here. My agent, David Falk, will take care of the arrangements, but that’s the goal.”