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T.J. SIMERS

Clippers' Vinny Del Negro takes this loss personally

Coach Vinny Del Negro drops his guard, and the cliches, when discussing how much Chauncey Billups means to the Clippers, and how deeply the veteran guard's season-ending injury has affected the team.

February 07, 2012|T.J. Simers
  • Clippers guards Chris Paul, left, and Chauncey Billups head to the bench as Coach Vinny Del Negro looks on during the team's season-opener against Golden State on Christmas Day. Del Negro isn't one to downplay the significant role Billups has played for the Clippers this season.
Clippers guards Chris Paul, left, and Chauncey Billups head to the bench… (George Nikitin / Associated…)

From Cleveland — It's a Vinny Del Negro I do not know.

He's at a loss for cliches and coach-speak Tuesday over lunch, pausing to take a deep breath every time he mentions Chauncey Billups' name.

The veteran guard has been active in a Los Angeles uniform for only 20 games, but Del Negro says, "People have no idea what he has meant to this group."

Somewhere beyond the half-eaten bowl of soup, small talk and concern about how he might reenergize his team, Del Negro is now on the telephone talking to team trainer Jasen Powell.

Del Negro has yet to say much to his team, and nothing about Billups in the locker room after the game the previous night. He wants to be sure the bubble really has burst.

And so, although he knows what Powell is going to tell him, and dreads it, it's still a blow when word comes there will be no miracle.

"My stomach," he says while dropping his head.

Del Negro is sick all over again; he'd excused himself from a postgame chit-chat the night before because he thought he really might lose it.

It's a torn Achilles' tendon for Billups, surgery ahead along with months and months of rehab, and how much basketball time does Billups have remaining at age 35?

"I feel so badly for Chauncey," Del Negro says. Maybe others feel just as badly for the Clippers and wonder if Del Negro has the stuff to keep them surprising everyone.

A night earlier, the Clippers were loaded with momentum, with so many big wins in the last 10 days.

And, "Bang, bang, bang," Del Negro says in recounting the three long-range bombs dropped by Billups to turn Monday's game in the Clippers' favor.

Then it's the pop in Billups' Achilles', maybe an injury to be expected for an older player in this shortened season of game upon game. But not an Achilles'.

"I'm thinking he's sprained an ankle and it's bad, because he's so tough and he's being helped off the court," Del Negro says. "I don't hear Achilles' until I get to the locker room. That's not a good word. All I can do is pat him on the head and tell him I'm sorry."

The season moves on, and Del Negro says he will start Randy Foye in Billups' place Wednesday night so that Mo Williams, coming off MRI tests on his foot and knee, might provide energy and scoring off the bench.

"We're going to need some energy," says Del Negro, who might turn Wednesday or Friday to the newest Clipper, forward Kenyon Martin, to provide such a spark.

The conversation, meanwhile, returns to Billups, and out of nowhere Del Negro blurts out the words "Film session."

"Let me tell you about him," the coach says, and I don't remember anyone asking.

"Chauncey will be in there watching film and telling everyone, 'I messed up that play right there; that's my fault, but I'm not worried about it. Next time I'm not going to mess up.'

"Then he will turn to Caron [Butler] or DJ [DeAndre Jordan] or Blake [Griffin] and tell them, 'You messed up there, man. We can't do that if we're going to take it to the next level.'

"This guy has won a championship, been an MVP, All-Star, three-point and Hall of Fame guy and he's telling these guys you're messing things up just like the coach here is telling you."

Del Negro is telling stories now as a lunch turns into a two-hour-plus homage to Billups.

"He's playing badly and so I leave Mo in a game for most of the fourth quarter," says Del Negro. "I go to Chauncey later to explain and he stops me and he says, 'We won.'

"I send him into another game for Foye and just as he gets to the scorer's table, Foye hits a three. So all of a sudden Chauncey is standing in front of me and saying, 'Hey V, why don't you leave him in while he's hot and I'll get him later.'

"Do you know how many guys in this league would do that?" Del Negro says, the answer fairly obvious in the face he's making. "Guys want their minutes and stats. He wants wins.

"And when everything goes crazy, there was Chauncey's composure, telling everyone, 'I got this,' and if it was a big shot you knew he was going to make it."

So as good as the Clippers had it going, how do they avoid the emotional letdown?

"There's no denying how much he means to these guys," Del Negro says. "He's like a brother to Chris [Paul], and he has something special with DJ and Blake, and so many others.

"We win in Orlando, but it's quiet in the locker room, quiet on the bus, quiet on the plane to Cleveland and it's still the same here in the morning when we get together."

As a result, Del Negro keeps his team in the gym longer than he might to get them back thinking about basketball.

He's got some serious coaching and therapy to do, beginning with the Cavaliers tonight. But by the end of practice, his players are working on halfcourt shots and monster dunks, and it appears maybe the fog is lifting.

"Without Chauncey other guys are going to have to step it up," Del Negro says, and obviously he's back on his game with the cliches.

"Time will tell," he adds, and now they won't stop.

"I feel like we're heading in the right direction," Del Negro says, the onslaught now relentless. "And it's my job to get us there."

I'm guessing by taking it one game at a time, life without Billups starts tonight.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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