NEWARK, NJ - MARCH 07: Head coach Vinny Del Negro of the Los Angeles Clippers looks on against the New Jersey Nets at Prudential Center on March 7, 2012 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
The week started off disastrously for the Clippers with three losses in three nights on the road, but a solid home win on Saturday righted the ship at least temporarily.
It's a good thing that this weekly column comes out on Monday instead of Friday, as the Clippers week looked a lot more bleak before the weekend. The Clippers faced, it must be admitted, a difficult situation. After already playing six games in nine days, they departed on a trip of three games in three nights on the road, completing a hellish stretch of 9 games in just 12 days. It was a formidable task -- and it didn't go well.
The Clippers lost all three games of their road back-to-back-to-back -- with each loss a little more embarrassing than the last. It started in Indiana, where the Pacers bench broke open a close game and cruised to the victory. Indiana reserves George Hill, Tyler Hansbrough and Leandro Barbosa lit up L.A. for 44 points on 18-27 shooting in that one.
|Field Goal %:||42.0%|
|True Shooting %:||49.9%|
|Effective FG %:||46.3%|
|Tuesday: Pacers 102, Clippers 89|
|Wednesday: Thunder 114, Clippers 91|
|Thursday: Hornets 97, Clippers 90|
|Saturday: Clippers 101, Grizzlies 85|
Next came Oklahoma City, where the West-leading Thunder made short work of the Clippers. Some hot first quarter shooting by Randy Foye kept L.A. close early, but the Thunder kept getting layups all night while the Clippers were taking jump shots, so guess which team stayed hot the rest of the way. The Thunder won that one 114-91.
Still, although the losses in Indianapolis and Oklahoma City weren't particularly pretty, it's not as if they were unexpected. Playing on the road against playoff-level teams -- those are games you lose. Thursday night in New Orleans, the Clippers faced the West's worst team, the Hornets. L.A. blew a 12 point second half lead, scored just 11 points in the fourth quarter, and lost the game, 97-90.
After the loss in Oklahoma City, the rumors started swirling around coach Vinny Del Negro. Bill Simmons of Grantland got the ball rolling when he tweeted that VDN's job was in jeopardy: "Heard today that Vinny Del Negro is on super-thin, could-go-any-day ice. A blowout loss in OKC tonight won't exactly help." The next day Chris Broussard of ESPN was saying that Del Negro had lost the locker room, the worst possible sin for any coach.
After losing in New Orleans, the chatter reached a fever pitch and it seemed as if Del Negro was as good as gone. But a funny thing happened: when the Clippers played a critical game against the Grizzlies on Saturday afternoon, there was Del Negro sitting on the sidelines, still coaching the team. Stranger still -- the Clippers actually looked good, for the first time in about six weeks, as they manhandled Memphis 101-85. The offense broke out of a slump that had seen them score less than 100 in nine straight games, and more importantly, the Clippers managed to give a sustained effort through four quarters of basketball, correcting at least temporarily what had been a huge focus problem. For this one game at least, the Clippers certainly did not look like a team that had stopped listening to their coach or refused to put in the effort.
For all of the mediocre play and lackluster record over the last six weeks or so, the Clippers are still in fourth place in the Western Conference -- but a mere game and a half separates fourth place (and with it home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs) and ninth place (and missing the playoffs altogether), so there's no longer any margin for error.
The team has a massive opportunity this week to get their season back on track and solidify their position in the playoff race. The next four games are all at home against teams that are terrible on the road. L.A. is also through the busiest portion of their schedule, and while they still have a lot of games to play in a short amount of time, the same is true for all the teams, and frankly it's a leisurely pace for the remaining games compared to what they've been through. With upcoming home games against teams like Utah and Phoenix and Portland, the Clippers have a chance not only to win the game, but also to put some distance between themselves and some of the teams that are chasing them in the playoff race. And it all starts with a Monday night revenge game against that Hornets team that beat them in New Orleans -- and in the process delivered a cheap shot to Blake Griffin.
These next four games are the Clippers' chance to get their season moving in the right direction again. An undefeated week is well within reach, and it would put the Clippers on very solid footing in the playoff race -- and probably allow Vinny Del Negro to keep his job for the rest of the season.
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