Clippers keep themselves engaged

LOS ANGELES -- The signs are usually easy to spot. Lopsided losses. Rolling eyes. Quick exits from the locker room after games.

I've seen enough of the Clippers the last three years to know when a team has quit on a season and on a coach.

I had begun to think this season's team, which would be ranked about third in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, was starting to show signs of that familiar Clippers fade after a 27-point blowout loss at Indiana and a disheartening nine-point home loss to the Knicks on Saturday night.

But nothing about Monday's 99-95 upset of the previously scorching New Orleans Hornets looked familiar.

Yes, the Clippers (2-13) are still way too young to be considered a playoff contender this season or even to expect wins such as this one on a consistent basis.

And yes, they caught the Hornets (11-2) on the second night of a back-to-back.

But the Clippers pulled this one out for all the right reasons.

"We battled tonight," coach Vinny Del Negro said. "We battled. These guys are hanging tough right now. And I'm happy for them because the work we've been putting in paid off for us tonight.

"We were able to overcome mistakes with just hustle, effort and getting some 50-50 balls."

Teams that have quit on the season or their coaches don't do that. They pout and look for excuses. They let eight-point deficits snowball into 25-point losses. Each bit of adversity undercuts their focus even further.

I know because I've seen it happen to the Clippers the last two seasons. I'll never forget my first season around the team in 2008-09, when players were literally fighting over the earliest possible time slot for their exit meeting with coach and general manager Mike Dunleavy the day after the season ended.

I showed up that day around 11 a.m. and just about every player had met with Dunleavy and got as far away from Clipperland as he could by then.

But for now at least, Del Negro still clearly has their attention. Or at least the attention of the core group of young players the organization is counting on to turn the fortunes of the franchise around.

"His whole thing was for us to just come in and work," rookie forward Blake Griffin said. "We're a young team. A very young team. We started basically a college team.

"What he's saying is correct. It's just a matter of getting out there and doing it every day."

It's hard to say whether the players like Del Negro, respect him or both. But it doesn't really matter as long as they're still buying in to what he's saying.

He did one really smart thing at the beginning of training camp, which was to publicly call out too-often injured and disengaged point guard Baron Davis for starting on his conditioning too late in the summer.

And he has continued to hold Davis accountable for his conditioning.

"If he's in shape and he's engaged and he's committed, absolutely he can make a difference. Everyone knows that," Del Negro said when asked if he wanted Davis to come back from a knee injury that has kept him out 11 of the past 12 games.

"But how's his knee feeling? He's got some issues there. Will his commitment be there? Will he be engaged and do the right things that he's capable to help lead this team? If he does that, of course."

It was and still is a stunning public statement about a player who was the most high profile free agent ever to sign with the Clippers. Since Del Negro went public in his statements about Davis, I've had several players admit to me that that one gesture was sorely lacking the past two seasons and helped turn the players off to Dunleavy and his staff.

Whether calculated or just instinctual, it was exactly the move Del Negro needed to make to get this team's attention.

So far, he has kept it.

There were smiles and sighs of relief after Monday's win, not eye-rolls.

"This feels good," Griffin said. "It gives us confidence. But we still have 60-plus games left. We can't give up now."

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.