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With Vinny Del Negro surviving, the Clippers are thriving

T.J. SIMERS

The Clippers are 12-2 since everyone had Del Negro pegged as dead coach walking. So how good a coach does that make him?

April 17, 2012|T.J. Simers

I had every intention of beginning this column with Vinny Del Negro but got sidetracked by Salma Hayek.

Vinny who?

As you know, Salma and I have had something going for a number of years now, and I'm going to worry whether Arte Moreno gives me the time of day?

Someone mentioned my wife, and I believe it was my wife. But she's funny like that.

But how was I to know that Salma would show up for the San Antonio game, which is more than I can say for the Lakers.

Caught by surprise, I hadn't shaved, which probably explains why Salma shook hands rather than leaping over the seats and hugging me as we have done so often in the past.

"This is my husband," she said with disappointment, and I guess she really couldn't have been expected to wait forever.

"But he spends most of his time in France," she continued with a grin, "and you're here."

Now, if only she didn't spend most of her time in France as well, then I wouldn't be stuck here with Del Negro.

Wasn't he supposed to be gone by now? That's what I read:

March 21, ESPN's Bill Simmons tweets: "Heard today that Vinny Del Negro is on super-thin, could-go-any-day ice."

March 23, ESPN the Magazine's Chris Broussard quotes a source as saying: "Vinny has lost the team. They don't want to play hard for him."

March 26: The Times' Bill Plaschke writes: "While nobody would say it publicly, there were indications Saturday that Del Negro might not survive the 18 games remaining in the regular season, and if he does, he would certainly not be retained for next season."

But here we are, and the heart still beats. By the way, mine's still going pitter-patter as well.

The Clippers have gone 12-2 since everyone had Del Negro pegged as dead coach walking and his players no longer playing hard for him.

So how good of a coach does that make him?

Del Negro was so far gone that rather than show him support, the team's general manager, Neil Olshey, declined to talk about him following three straight losses.

The Clippers lost 12 of 19 and there was legitimate alarm the team might fall out of the playoffs.

But here we are — the Clippers still hanging with the Lakers after the Clippers took down the mighty Oklahoma City Thunder twice in the last week.

It should tell you something about Del Negro. He doesn't rattle.

"The glass is always half full as far as I'm concerned," he says. "What we've done this year to me is special. And we're not even close to being complete, or done building what we have started here."

While "sources" were lining up to help write off Del Negro, he was on a plane with his team returning from a loss in New Orleans.

The players slept while Del Negro paced the aisle as he always does, win or lose, front to back and back to front.

"Just thinking," he says, but never once allowing himself to ponder the possibility he was about to lose his job.

"I think it's important the players don't see you sweat," Del Negro says. "My job is to wake up every morning excited about preparing my players, getting them locked in and not letting anything outside these walls impact their focus."

But how do you get players, who supposedly are no longer playing hard for a coach, to go 12-2?

"You watch Chris Paul play?" Del Negro says. "He has this incredible will to win. It's a gift.

"And if you watch what Blake Griffin has been doing, seven assists last night against the Thunder, he's now making good players very good players with some of the things he's done beyond the usual spectacular stuff."

The Clippers have the contract option to bring Del Negro back next season, but you know what the sources have to say about that.

"I just wish if someone had something to say they would say it to my face," Del Negro says.

"But hey, I came in here with eyes wide open. Chicago was still paying me, so I didn't do it for the money. I wanted to stay in the saddle, get better at my job and when I talked to Mr. [Donald] Sterling he impressed me with his focus in building the right way.

"That's why we went and got Chris Paul, why he gave DJ [DeAndre Jordan] a maximum contract and got Caron Butler. I'd like to finish what we've started, but I know it's a business and things don't always go the way you want."

It was Sterling who muffled the sources who seemed to know Del Negro was going to be dismissed. Sterling went public to say he never considered making a coaching change and Del Negro would be the team's leader the rest of the season.

"I know there were things being written," Del Negro said. "But I don't ever feel like things are getting away from me. I'm not built like that.

"I want to get ready for the next game and win it."

The Clippers beat the Thunder with Del Negro coaching as if it were a playoff elimination contest.

"I knew that game for our guys was a confidence thing," he says. "It's not that they needed it, but when we won in Oklahoma City last week and then backed it up with this win, it's not really a fluke. And confidence at this level is huge. It makes a team dangerous."

The Clippers have advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, but how can anyone expect them to advance if the players don't want to play hard for Del Negro?

Del Negro laughs. And so far the last laugh is his.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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