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Clippers have made noticeable turnaround

The team organized a players-only meeting in December to encourage everyone to step up and help the team improve. The Clippers have won eight of 12 overall since that meeting.

January 15, 2011|By Jim Peltz

When the Clippers' team bus returned from a morning practice and pulled up to their hotel on a cold day in Detroit in mid-December, the coaches and staff stepped off and walked inside.

The players stayed in their seats. They had something urgent to discuss — privately.

Even with young sensation Blake Griffin in their lineup and a new head coach in Vinny Del Negro, the long-suffering NBA franchise was staring at another miserable season. The Clippers had arrived from Philadelphia where they'd lost their fourth consecutive game. Their record was a dismal 5-21. And back in Los Angeles, media reports had surfaced that frustrated team owner Donald Sterling had heckled veteran point guard Baron Davis and other players from the sidelines during games.

But 21-year-old rookie or not, Griffin was in no mood to settle for a long season of mediocrity, so he joined Davis and other Clippers in organizing the players-only meeting on the bus in hopes of quickly changing course.

"At the time we had won only five games and we had heard all the rumblings about us being the worst team in the NBA — blah, blah, blah," Griffin said. "That wasn't us. We're not the worst team. We talked about having pride and stepping up."

That's just what happened. The Clippers beat Detroit that night for their first road win of the season, won their next two games and have won eight of 12 overall since their meeting, including a win over LeBron James and the Miami Heat last Wednesday.

Now, as the Clippers again face the Lakers on Sunday afternoon at Staples Center, the Clippers are raising eyebrows as a team that's finding its stride, building its confidence and capable of winning each time it takes the floor, even if the Clippers' record remains 13-25 after their loss to the Golden State Warriors on Friday.

"We still have lapses," Del Negro said, and indeed the Clippers have oddly struggled to play well against second-level teams and to carry early leads through the fourth quarter. They also lost a thriller to the Lakers by one point last month on Derek Fisher's driving layup as time expired.

Even so, "we're moving in the right direction," Del Negro said.

A key part of the Clippers' resurgence is Griffin, the power forward who not only has scored 20 or more points in each of his last 14 games but also hasn't shied from assuming a leadership role on the Clippers' squad, as evidenced by the meeting on the bus.

Saying he raised his voice "a little" when it was his turn to speak, Griffin recalled that the message he sent was that "I'm tired of hearing all this stuff about what happened in the past. It was a matter of changing the culture."

Forward Ryan Gomes said the meeting lasted about 25 minutes and that its overarching theme was that each player needed to identify his role. That's not an easy task because "we all came from programs where we were 'the guy' on our team, the [top] scorer, the 'Mr. Everything,' " Gomes said. "But no one took it personally."

Before their meeting, "we were trying to do it on our own, each player," Davis said. "We needed to collectively get on the same page."

Davis said he told his teammates they would start with Griffin and 22-year-old guard Eric Gordon, currently the team's leading scorer with an average 23.7 points per game, being the heart of the Clippers' offense.

"I spoke to Eric and I spoke to Blake, directly in front of the team, to let them know that I want you guys to be All-Stars," Davis said. "The only way we can make that happen is if we start winning. These two guys are unstoppable, it's up to me and the rest of us to make sure we make their job easier and I'll be the centerpiece of that."

Indeed, Davis' playmaking has been more inspired — and noticed by rivals. Golden State head Coach Keith Smart, who was an assistant coach there when Davis played with the Warriors in 2005-2008, said "what [Davis] has done is manage the team. He's not trying to be the leading scorer; he's just trying to make sure their young guys are in the places they're supposed to be in. I know. I've seen him do it with some of our guys."

And when Del Negro was asked to sum up the Clippers' turnaround, he replied: "Baron Davis. Better work habits from our young guys. Our defense overall that's kept us in games.

"Baron is a huge catalyst for us," Del Negro said. "He controls the game when he scores, gives us assists, he's our third guy between Blake and Eric Gordon. When he has good games, it makes everything else go."

The question is how much further the Clippers can go and whether the franchise can finish the season above .500 for the first time since 2005-06.

But at least "it's gone well" lately, Gomes said, adding with a grin, "We haven't had any more meetings."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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