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Baron rounds into form for Clippers

LOS ANGELES -- "You're looking good," said players' union chief Billy Hunter, who was in town Tuesday for his annual meeting with the Clippers' players. "You're keeping the weight off.''

"Have to, have to,'' Baron Davis answered with a smile. "I'm 30.''

That's just the start of it. After 10 years with the Hornets and Warriors, Davis moved back to his hometown of Los Angeles last season and celebrated with the worst performance of his career. For the first time he was playing for an execution X's-and-O's coach in Mike Dunleavy and with a traditional post-up center in Chris Kaman. He was overweight and underwhelming while shooting a career-worst 37 percent.

"I wanted to get my swagger back, my focus back on who I am as a player and how I can be effective for this franchise,'' he said during our conversation Sunday. "I put in the time and lots and lots and lots of yoga and conditioning and good eating. It put me in a better place -- more balanced, more focused.''

Now Davis is on the verge of renewing himself as one of the league's top point guards. He produced 25 points and 10 assists Wednesday to drive his team to its fifth straight home win, a 102-91 upset that ended the Lakers' nine-game winning streak against the Clippers. Davis dealt seven assists in the opening quarter, and the Clippers outscored their guests 26-15 on the break and 54-34 in the paint while holding the Lakers to 38.4 percent from the floor.

"They were down our throats all night,'' Lakers coach Phil Jackson told reporters.

Davis's averages aren't spectacular as they've been in the past -- 16.4 points and 7.8 assists this season -- but he's shooting fewer three-pointers and making them a bit more often, and he is developing a rapport with Kaman, who is suddenly an All-Star candidate with a team-leading 20.3 points to go with 9.1 rebounds.

"I said to Baron, 'This guy [Kaman] can take your assist numbers off the charts because he's an assist waiting to happen. You give him the ball at the right point, the right time, and he's automatic,' " Dunleavy said. "He's developed that and they've got a much, much greater chemistry than last year.''

That suggestion grew out of a series of meals Davis shared with his coach over the summer.

"We got a chance to go to lunch and talk and establish our own relationship, to where now we trust each other more,'' Davis said. "After the season, I reached out to him and we would check in once every two weeks or so. He would ask me to go to lunch or I would ask him. He's just a real cool dude, he's a good guy off the court, and it's good to see somebody outside of this [NBA] element where there's so much pressure, so much intensity. It was good to get away from the game and find out who he is as a man.''

Assistant coach John Lucas was brought in to further improve the relationship between head coach and point guard. Dunleavy believes in watching film with his team and executing plays, which is antithetical to the free-flowing style Davis enjoyed with Don Nelson at Golden State.

"I was taught throughout my years in the league to play more off instincts,'' Davis said, "and I think here that has changed. It's more structured, more controlled. It's more geared toward recognizing the mismatch, whereas the other teams that I've played for I had a lot more leeway to create.''

Davis now recognizes how much he shares in common with his coach.

"You realize you're very similar as far as the sense of competition that we both share,'' he said. "I know I'm hard-headed, and I know he's stubborn, but that makes it easier to get along.''

Davis launched his time with Dunleavy under difficult circumstances. He had been recruited to play alongside Elton Brand, who surprisingly moved to Philadelphia as a free agent after Davis had been signed to a five-year, $55 million contract by the Clippers. Had they known Brand wouldn't remain in Los Angeles, the Clippers probably would not have recruited Davis -- and he knew it.

"It took the wind out,'' Davis said. "It was supposed to be a positive thing, and it turned out I was in a situation that maybe they didn't want me -- that they didn't want me if they didn't have Elton here. It was sort of last year feeling like the unwanted child.''

Now that he's in shape and beginning to renew his old form, the Clippers hope that Davis will lead them into the playoffs. After an 0-4 start, they now stand 16-18 -- just 2½ games out of the No. 8 spot -- with No. 1 pick Blake Griffin likely to join their frontcourt by the end of the month.

"I know what my mission is, why I came here, and I want to accomplish that goal the same way I did when I was at Charlotte, when I was at New Orleans, when I was at Golden State,'' Davis said. "I want to get the Clippers to be one of the best teams in the league, that people want to play for and we are a playoff-contending team each and every year.''

Davis understands the skepticism that will follow his claim of a newfound relationship with Dunleavy. But he insists their rapport is real.

"It's been a great year, it's been a learning year,'' Davis said. "Coach Dunleavy has been great as far as allowing me to have some input and he's kind of like grooming me to be a coach. I can't be mad at that.''

That's right. Baron Davis is talking about becoming a coach someday.

"It's something I never thought that I'd be wanting to do,'' he said. "But [Davis and the coaches] always talk about the game. [Dunleavy] lets me draw plays in practice. I'm overjoyed right now. I just know there's a lot more in it for this organization. The future is definitely going to be bright and I'm doing everything I possibly can do to work and to make that happen.''

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