LOS ANGELES -- Reggie Williams knew he shouldn't play. The area around his right eye was still tender and slightly swollen -- the result of a collision with Houston's Eric (Sleepy) Floyd two nights before -- and his vision had not returned to normal.

"Things were a little blurry," said Williams, the former Georgetown star who is in his rookie season with the Los Angeles Clippers. "They wanted me to wear an eye patch. But if I'd had to wear an eye patch, I wouldn't have played. No way I was going to wear that."

Instead, Williams chose to downplay the injury and start last Saturday against the Los Angeles Lakers. He'd already missed two games earlier this year with flu, and had just gotten his timing back after several poor performances. This was no time to go down again.

"Besides, it was the world champions," Williams said. "No matter how you feel, everybody wants to get in there and run with them."

It proved to be a mistake. Tentative, awkward and still clearly uncomfortable with Coach Gene Shue's half-court offense, Williams played horribly. He finished with two points and two rebounds in 23 minutes, missing all five attempts from the field, and turned the ball over three times.

Williams spent most of the second half on the bench and watched silently as his teammates absorbed a 108-97 loss. The result was to be expected for the Clippers -- the NBA's worst team a year ago with a record of 12-70 -- and many took the defeat in stride.

But for Williams, who knew nothing but success both at Georgetown and Baltimore's Dunbar High School, it was simply another taste of the unknown.

"I'm not sure what kind of adjustment that {losing} is for a player," Shue said. "It's probably not very easy. Once you get used to winning like he has, it's difficult to accept the sort of losses that occur in this league."

Indeed, the Clippers' loss to their crosstown rivals and a subsequent defeat to San Antonio dropped their record to 8-14, more defeats in six weeks than Williams endured in any single season with the Hoyas.

"I've never accepted losing, but I guess you have to deal with it," Williams said. "It's problematic. We play 82 games here, and you can't worry about the losses. You've got a game the next night. You can't be concerned with what happened the night before."

Williams' season has been a baffling assortment of good games and off-nights, of rookie mistakes and inherent ability. His 12.8 scoring average is third-best on the team, and his 34 points against the Seattle SuperSonics on Dec. 12 are the most by a Clipper this season.

But Williams is shooting just 39 percent from the field, and invariably has followed up each good game with a poor performance. When he scored 25 points against Portland on Nov. 7, he came back three days later with nine against Utah. He scored 33 against San Antonio on Nov. 17, then just eight the next night against Dallas, and so on.

Since his 34-point outing against Seattle, Williams' next four games included totals of 14, six, two and 11 points, respectively, hardly the way to earn respect in the NBA. But Williams is pragmatic.

"You can't play 82 games great, you know that," he said. "Even the great players like Bird and Magic aren't going to play 82 games great. Sometimes you have to go out and just hope you can help your team."

But Williams had wanted to do something noteworthy against the Lakers. A fan of Magic Johnson's since he was a teen-ager, Williams had drawn the assignment of guarding the league's most valuable player on this night.

He had met the Lakers' charismatic guard twice -- on a recruiting trip to UCLA in 1982 and again earlier this season in a 111-82 loss at the Forum -- and came away impressed both times.

"He's the man," Williams said. And Johnson took advantage of Williams, finishing with 28 points and seven assists. Yet he had kind words for his opponent afterward.

"I was the same way once," Johnson said. "I can understand what he went through. How do you think I felt the first time I looked up and saw Dr. J in there? That just happens.

"But he's going to have his up and down games. Against us, we had Coop {Michael Cooper, the NBA's defensive player of the year} in his face all night, and that's not easy. But he'll get better. He likes challenges. You can tell."

Actually, it's hard to tell much of anything about Williams. He is soft-spoken and shy, and has gone out of his way to avoid the media hype and exposure afforded fellow rookies such as Scottie Pippen of Chicago, Reggie Miller of Indiana and Derrick McKey of Seattle.

Williams has become notorious for his quick locker room exits after games, and is still uncomfortable with the demanding Los Angeles media. But Shue said he has no plans to ask Williams to open up.

"Whether you talk or don't, it doesn't generally mean anything about what's inside," Shue said. "You can be very, very quiet -- like Reggie is -- and still be competitive. I think Reggie's just a private person. But I doubt that will ever affect his play."

When he made Williams the fourth overall pick in the 1987 draft, Shue immediately announced plans to convert him to the off-guard position. Williams' rail-thin body didn't stand a chance underneath NBA baskets, Shue figured, and his height (6 feet 7) would be an advantage in the back court. But a two-week contract holdout, a surplus of guards and injuries to other Clippers forwards have combined to put those plans on hold for now.

"I've played Reggie as both a three {forward} and a two {guard}, but he still has to learn to be a half-court player either way," Shue said. "Reggie's style is more suited to the open court. At Georgetown, he saw a lot of zones and open 15- or 20-footers. {But} I think eventually he'll be a two."

Asked which he prefers, Williams shrugged. "I'll play anywhere {Shue} wants me to," he said. "If I'm supposed to be a guard, that's okay. I'll play as hard as I can. It's just something else I'll have to adjust to."