Sea is choppy, but ship isn't sinking, Brand says

Times Staff Writer

The questions have confused Elton Brand.

The Clippers have not met expectations to this point, Brand acknowledged, but the season isn't over.

"We've fielded all these questions about the season being over. We've been asked, 'Can the season be salvaged?' Of course it could," Brand said. "When we got those questions before, we went on to win three out of four and four out of six, so we can play better.

"We won the last two games on the trip, and we're getting healthy again, so that's going to help. We haven't done the things we expected to do as a team, so the questions are going to come when that happens, but we've got a good team."

After advancing to the Western Conference semifinals last season, the Clippers expected to challenge for the Pacific Division title this season.

The Clippers (17-20) are fourth in the five-team division, 11 1/2 games behind the first-place Phoenix Suns. They were 3-3 on a six-game, 10-day trip, finishing with victories over the New Orleans Hornets and Minnesota Timberwolves, before losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday at Staples Center.

Sam Cassell, sidelined recently because of a heel injury, returned for the games against the Hornets and Timberwolves. He scored a game-high 31 points off the bench against the Hornets and had 18 points and five assists against Minnesota.

Cassell makes a big difference for the Clippers, Brand said.

"We're missing a big part of our squad when Sam is out," he said. "He's a big part of what we do."

The Clippers could qualify for the playoffs, Brand said, but they must continue to make strides.

"We just have to play the right way," Brand said. "We have to get our defensive intensity up. We've done it before, so we know we can do it, but we can't wait to make it happen.

"We're confident in our ability, it's just our effort and our resiliency.... That's what we have to improve on. We need to improve on that all the way around. We have to play harder and play better."

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Center Chris Kaman returned to the lineup Saturday against Cleveland. Kaman sat out the fourth quarter Wednesday against Minnesota because of a sprained right ankle.

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Backup forward-center Aaron Williams was sidelined because of a stomach virus and did not attend the game, a Clippers spokesman said.

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Cleveland's Larry Hughes sat out because of a left leg injury. He is averaging 14.8 points.

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jason.reid@latimes.com

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