This game is the expected quiet, bottom-of-the-standings affair. Only 6,074 people appear at the aging Sports Arena. The rock-and-roll music bounces off the walls during the timeouts. Fitch works one end of the floor, by the Clippers' bench. Motta works the other end. They both work as if the fate of the free world is at stake.
The Nuggets, with 13 turnovers, fall behind 53-44 at the half. They try to climb back, closing to within 105-103 with 2:51 left, but they are behind 114-108 with only 6.1 seconds remaining. Motta is animated, talking to his team in the huddle. The huddle breaks. Guard Mark Jackson hits a three-pointer to make the score 114-111 with 2.3 seconds left. Timeout. Once more the Clippers only have" to throw the ball inbounds....
Los Angeles forward Rodney Rogers makes a bad pass. Denver's LaPhonso Ellis intercepts, maybe 40 feet from the basket. He has time for one hurried three-point attempt that goes up, up, off the backboard and off the rim and falls to the floor. Clippers win.
"You get behind like we did at the half, and everything has to be perfect for a team like ours to come back," Motta says, staring at the stat sheet. "And it wasn't."
He obviously is bothered. Why all those turnovers? Why does the team play so mechanically sometimes? Why? He lets the sheet fall to the floor as if the information were something foul to the touch.
"It's a nice win," Fitch says in the other locker room, "but let me say this: We're going to be the first team in the history of the NBA to use its first draft choice to get a guy who can throw the ball inbounds. That's all we want. Someone who can throw the ball inbounds."
He shakes his head in disgust. "If I had that gun...." he says. "There'd be a couple of guys ducking right now. And they know who they are."
Another night. Another meeting. Win number 907 for Walter Matthau. Loss number 986 for Jack Lemmon. Still counting.