T.J. Simers

Formerly fun Clippers are flat-out lifeless in loss

They were the NBA darlings just last week, better than the Lakers and a great feel-good story. So what went wrong in this 105-98 loss to New Orleans?

Obviously, Vinny Del Negro had to be asked whether the Clippers were holding something back on their recent trip while losing three in a row.

That will probably sail right over the heads of UCLA fans who still seem preoccupied watching replays of Jim Mora's news conference from Saturday after getting blown out by Stanford.

I understand. It beats watching replays of UCLA and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo playing basketball.

But enough about losers, what about the Clippers?

They were the NBA darlings just last week, better than the Lakers and a great feel-good story.

So what went wrong in this 105-98 loss to New Orleans?

Ralph Lawler doesn't hesitate when asked, pointing to his broadcasting partner and saying, "Mike Smith.''

So I tell Del Negro in his pregame presser, "Lawler says Smith is the problem,'' and Del Negro doesn't demand the statement be put in the form of a question.

"I would never disagree with Ralph,'' says Del Negro. And how refreshing it is to hear everyone laugh during a news conference.

Later, Del Negro talks about getting the Clippers back on track and not looking at opponents such as the Hornets as easy marks.

"But Lawler mumbled something about your next seven games are going to be easy,'' I tell Del Negro, reminding him he just said he's not one to disagree with Lawler.

"I'm sure Mike Smith gave him those statistics,'' says Del Negro. What a breath of fresh air.

And isn't that why folks like the Clippers?

They aren't the Lakers, which most nights makes Lob City more fun to watch. They are the underdogs with some bite now, and Hollywood star power in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

But are the Clippers afraid now of being good?

"I like that,'' says Del Negro. "A lot of guys haven't had the bull's eye on their chests before and there's a responsibility that goes with that.''

In other words, don't lose to teams such as Cleveland and Golden State or fail to show up in Atlanta.

Or really take a leap into the dumper and lose to New Orleans.

"We've got to compete at a higher level,'' Del Negro says, and that's before the game.

As I begin to ask a follow-up question, or maybe offer another statement, Del Negro stops me.

"What's with all the body language you got going on?'' he says, noticing that I just got the shivers, or maybe it was goose bumps.

"I was listening to you answer the questions,'' I tell him, "and I got so excited because it's been a long time since anyone just answered the questions.''

The pregame news conference ends and the game never seemingly begins for the Clippers. They are lifeless.

It doesn't help they have drawn the worst referees in the NBA, led by Marc Davis, who ruin the flow of the game.

The Clippers look so bad that UCLA comes to mind, which means they could fall by as many as 18.

The crowd is dead as well until they begin chanting something not very nice about the referees.

Later, Davis will have one of the courtside fans of the Clippers ejected, and no, it wasn't Donald Sterling.

Maybe the ejected fan is the lucky one, getting to leave early. Are these the same old Clippers, squandering progress made and now trailing a New Orleans' team that has lost seven in a row?

It's time for Paul to display some leadership, or at least shoot the ball. Griffin hasn't scored and will finish the game with four points.

Paul has recently taken to saving himself in the first half, and is it a coincidence the Clippers have been losing?

I swear I didn't yell to him, but Paul gets the message when the Clippers go down by eight.

He puts up a quick nine points and finishes the first half as the team's leading scorer with 11. As soon as he shows some life, so do the Clippers.

But here's where the Clippers failed against Brooklyn and then against Atlanta. They no longer have that swagger that made them so much fun to watch.

The game stays ugly, swinging decisively in the Hornets' favor when Matt Barnes goes thug and stupid on the same play. He throws an elbow for a flagrant foul and then draws a technical for opening his mouth.

The Hornets go up by 11, then 17 and OK, so they only win by seven.

But the magic is gone for the Clippers.

The season might be only 14 games old, but expectations have been raised and the Clippers have no business reporting to duty flat as they appeared.

"I told the team no one is feeling sorry for you; you got what you deserved,'' says Del Negro.

"You didn't play hard enough to win.''

Maybe that's what happens when you hold back and lose the edge necessary to win.

I'd hate to think, like we're being told at UCLA now, the home team gave it their best shot.

There has to be more, doesn't there?

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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