But even if his starting assignment was only temporary, Donaldson certainly made the most of it Wednesday night. He scored a season-high 24 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead theClippers to a 98-88 victory over the Rockets before a crowd of 10,874 at the Sports Arena.
Donaldson, who lost his starting center spot to Walton 25 games ago, will probably return to his reserve role now that the Rockets have left town. But Wednesday, he played all 48 minutes and held Olajuwon to 16 points. Sampson scored 21 from his power forward spot, but managed only two points in the fourth quarter.
The victory improves the Clippers' record to 19-22 as they reached the halfway point of the 82-game regular season. Lately, however, the Clippers have been on a roll, winning five of their last six games.
This was a night in which the Clippers needed Donaldson on the court every second. Two of theClippers' power forwards, Michael Cage and Harvey Catchings, were in street clothes nursing injuries, and Walton went down midway through the first quarter with a bruised left knee.
Although Walton returned in the second half and was effective, it was Donaldson that dominated the inside game. The only points either Sampson or Olajuwon scored in the fourth quarter came on a Sampson jumper in the final seconds.
"Overall, this was probably the best game I've played," Donaldson said. "All I want to do is go out there and play the best I possibly can. I know that I can play."
Before the game, guard Norm Nixon said he jokingly told Donaldson that the team was expecting him to play 48 minutes. Just before tipoff, however, Coach Jim Lynam told Donaldson the same thing. And Lynam wasn't kidding.
"As soon as I learned that Cage (back spasms) wasn't going to play, I told James to be ready to play 48. He said, 'I've been feeling real good.' No, let's make that real well. Let's correct the grammar on that."
Incorrect grammar was the only thing about Donaldson that Lynam criticized Wednesday. Outmuscling Olajuwon inside, Donaldson made 9 of 10 shots to increase his league-leading field-goal percentage to 70.4% Seven of his nine baskets came on savage dunks that tested the construction of the Sports Arena backboards.
"When you go against big guys who block shots, you hate to have a layup or short jumper blocked," Donaldson said. "So, you take it to the hole."
Olajuwon has had worse games than this. But Donaldson handled the 7-foot rookie considerably better than in the previous two meetings when Olajuwon scored 27 and 30 points, respectively.
Whereas Donaldson was rattling the rims on the offensive end, he was crashing the boards defensively. Ten of his 13 rebounds came on the defensive end, as did eight of Walton's 10 rebounds. Sampson had 15 rebounds and Olajuwon 14 for the Rockets, but the Clippers had a 47-46 edge in rebounding.
Even though the Clippers went with Donaldson and Walton for much of the fourth quarter, it didn't stop the them from putting their running game into gear. Trailing, 71-70, entering the fourth quarter, the Clippers outscored the Rockets, 11-2, in the first three minutes to open a nine-point lead they never relinquished.
Unlike Tuesday night's sluggish loss at Seattle, in which the Clippers struggled to place three players in double figures, they received 20 points from Marques Johnson, 17 apiece from Derek Smith and Norm Nixon, and 13 from Bridgeman to go along with Donaldson's 24.
When Nixon made a three-point shot in the third quarter, it pushed him over the 10,000-point mark in his eight-year career.
"We did a good job controling the tempo," Lynam said. "That was one key to our win. The big factor was the (lack of) turnovers. We had a lot in the first quarter (seven) and the score was reflective of it."
Indeed, turnovers were the main reason the Clippers scored only 15 points in the first quarter. But they settled down from that point on and committed only eight the rest of the game.
Good ball-handling also enhanced the running game. Five of the Clippers' 10 fourth-quarter field goals came via layups. Johnson made the shot of the game with six minutes left when he made a two-hand, reserve scoop layup between the arms of Sampson and Jim Peterson.
Because the Clippers were shorthanded, the 6-7 Johnson was forced to guard the 7-4 Sampson at times during the second half. Strangely, Sampson didn't post low on Johnson, opting instead to take outside shots. He made only 10 of 24 shots.
Marques Johnson sprained a joint on his right hand in Tuesday night's loss to Seattle, but X-rays Wednesday morning did not show a fracture. He was in the starting lineup Wednesday night. . . . Harvey Catchings' chronic bone spur in his right heel forced him to miss Wednesday night's game. After missing Saturday's win over Golden State with the injury, Catchings tried to play Tuesday but left again after two minutes with pain in his heel.