“And that’s why I try to come across that way, and I do come across that way because I believe it.” Dunleavy’s confidence may remain high regardless of the circumstances, but that is not how it works with the players. On one end of the spectrum there is Cassell, who hasn’t met a last-second shot he didn’t like – or take – and who always looks upbeat. On the other end there is Corey Maggette, who was upset with his playing time earlier this season but has thrived since returning to the starting lineup. His confidence appears as high as ever, and he is playing the most team-oriented style of his eight-year NBA career – and therefore the best basketball of his career. A revitalized Maggette is a big reason the Clippers have turned things around, but then again everybody else, especially Elton Brand and Cuttino Mobley, is playing better as well. Earlier this season, the Clippers did not appear to be committed to being a hard-nosed defensive team. They also had no floor general. Livingston still was developing and then was injured, and Cassell has been fighting injuries all season. Enter Jason Hart. He is far from an NBA superstar, but the Clippers signed him March 5 after he was released by the Sacramento Kings, and he has become a stabilizing force at point guard. His defense is much better than the 37-year-old Cassell’s, and he is getting a lot of credit from his teammates for helping turn the team’s fortunes around. But it didn’t look that way at first. “We lost the first five with Jason, so I’m not going to give him the full turning-point credit,” Brand said. “Once he learned the system, he started playing well and really helped us.” The one thing Hart is not is a last-minute shot-taking wonder like Cassell. Without the veteran, the Clippers lack a full-fledged, go-to guy in crunch time. The Clippers frequently put Brand in that role, but he hasn’t always succeeded. Opponents usually double-team Brand close to the basket and force someone else to take the shot. “With Sam being out, E.B. is going to have to be their clutch guy or Cuttino or Corey,” Hart said. “We have to rally around the fact that Sam’s not here and somebody else is going to have to step up in that moment. & I play off those guys and let their talents come out. I let those guys do their thing, and in the meantime, I make a couple shots here or there.” The Clippers seemed to reach a turning point several times this season, but each time they eventually flopped. But by winning seven of nine games so far during arguably the most important stretch of the season, and with five of those wins coming on the road, this time the turnaround looks legitimate. Expectations may have been higher for the Clippers before the season started. But for this franchise, it would be monumental to make the playoffs for a second straight season for the first time in 14years. If they go 6-3 or better in their final nine games, they will finish above .500 in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1976, when they were the Buffalo Braves. “Considering what’s happening with Sam and Shaun and other guys missing extended time, it definitely will be a success to get to the playoffs,” Brand said. “Our mindset now is to win as many games as we can to get there. And we’re not trying to be first-round fodder, either. We’re trying to play well. “And when we play well, we feel we can play against anybody.” firstname.lastname@example.org (562) 499-1338160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! EL SEGUNDO – When the Clippers sent out glossy mailers to solicit season-ticket renewals, they included a message from coach Mike Dunleavy. Under a heading titled “Today’s Clippers,” some short-term goals were mentioned, including these lines: “We’re going to start by finishing strong and making the playoffs for the second year in a row. And when we get to the playoffs, we’ll surprise people again.” Dunleavy’s signature comes at the end of the page and is preceded with “See You at the Playoffs.” While Dunleavy’s confidence might not appear surprising, the date the fliers were mailed does. They were sent out March 15, a day after the Clippers lost a fifth consecutive game and looked like a poor postseason bet. But the Clippers far from mailed in their season at that point. They have won seven of ninegames and have taken a 1 1/2-game lead over Golden State for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They look like a good bet to make the playoffs for a second straight season for the first time since 1993. The Clippers are playing the most unselfish basketball they have all season. They are playing intense defense practically every minute, and they have learned how to cope with the season-ending injury to Shaun Livingston and Sam Cassell’s chronic back spasms that have forced him to miss seven of the past 15 games. They have taken big strides to get back in the playoff race. But how in the world could Dunleavy have been so confident when things looked so bleak? “If I don’t really believe, it’s not going to go through to my guys, and it’s not going to get done,” he said. “That’s why I work as hard as I work, to make myself believe, to know that these are the things you should do to be successful.