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Celtics Clip Clippers 97-96

Antoine Walker's free throw in the closing seconds saved the Boston Celtics from blowing a big lead for the second straight night.

Walker went to the foul line with 16.1 seconds left and broke a tie as the Celtics beat the Los Angeles Clippers 97-96 Friday despite going the final 4:53 without a field goal. Walker finished with 28 points.

Chauncey Billups added 21 points for the Celtics, who blew a 12-point fourth-quarter lead one night after squandering an 18-point second-quarter advantage at Utah.

"This is very normal for us. We lose leads all the time," Celtics coach Rick Pitino said with a weary grin.

Lamond Murray scored 20 points and Lorenzen Wright had 16 points and 17 rebounds for the Clippers. Los Angeles failed for the third straight time to give coach Bill Fitch the victory that would put him past Celtics coach Red Auerbach and into second place on the career list behind Lenny Wilkens.

"The turnovers hurt us more than anything else," said Fitch, whose team turned the ball over 20 times against a defense that forces the most turnovers per game in the NBA. "Against full-court pressure, we turned it over on the fast break and we passed it out of the post."

Ron Mercer scored Boston's final basket, a reverse layup off a turnover by Murray that restored Boston's double-digit lead to 92-82. The Clippers went on a 10-1 run, capped by James Robinson's two free throws with 1:57 left, narrowing the deficit to 93-92.

"They were fouling, which takes away from our offense, and they also played very strong in the interior where me missed some easy jump shots," Pitino explained. "But they're an extremely well-coached team and you've got to fight them to win. They were just as hungry as us tonight."

After Dee Brown missed two free throws with 32 seconds remaining, Wright's two foul shots at the other end tied the score at 96 with 31 seconds to go. But Walker converted 1-of-2 from the line to give the Celtics their margin of victory. Robinson had a chance to win it for the Clippers, but his 14-footer in the lane over Brown bounced off the back rim as time expired.

"It was an isolation. James is a very good one-on-one player and it's hard to beat him to a spot," Brown said. "He made a good spin move, but Andrew DeClerc did a good job by stepping up and making him alter his shot a little bit."

The Clippers, held to just four field goals in the fourth quarter of a 99-77 loss at Boston on Dec. 21, made only three in the first 6½ minutes of the final period this time. But they still managed to cut a 12-point deficit to 87-82 with a 7-0 spurt capped by Robinson's layup off an inbounds pass by Murray with 5:33 remaining.

Brown, who had made 16 of 28 3-point attempts in his previous five games, got his only one against the Clippers with 4.4 seconds left in the third quarter to put Boston ahead 75-72. The Celtics extended their lead to 87-75 on a three-point play y Andrew DeClerq, which capped a 15-3 spurt with 7:46 to play.

Notes: Fitch has earned his 938 victories the hard way during a 25-year career that includes six losing seasons with Cleveland, one with Houston, three with New Jersey and four with the Clippers - including this one. Auerbach had only one losing season during his 20-year coaching career, when he was 28-29 with the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in 1949-50. ... Auerbach spent 16 seasons coaching the Celtics, who had winning records in all four seasons that Fitch coached them, including an NBA title in 1981. "I matched Red," Fitch said with a grin. "I never had a losing season with Boston, either. I tell him that every time I talk to him." ... Celtics reserve forward John Thomas strained his right Achilles tendon in the second quarter and was done after only three minutes.

©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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