It has been almost 15 years since Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro last played for the San Antonio Spurs, but he’s still far more synonymous with the Silver and Black than any of the other eight teams he has either played or coached for during his basketball career.
In fact, when the Spurs played the Clippers earlier this season, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich admitted that Del Negro’s name is still uttered in practices all the time, but maybe not for reasons Del Negro would like to hear.
“Some of the stuff we do on defense, we actually have one thing we call on the pin downs, we say we’re going to ‘Del Negro it’ and that’s in his honor and we’ve done that for 15 years,” Popovich said. “We have a Del Negro defense out there because he couldn’t play a lick of D. At times we had to invent something just to hide him, so we call it ‘Del Negro’ and you do certain things on the court and everybody has to make up for that guy who’s the ‘Del Negro.’”
Popovich doesn’t really consider Del Negro a protégé the same way he does former Spurs assistant coach and current Lakers head coach Mike Brown. “He’s not a protégé,” Popovich said. “We never coached together but I was able to coach him.”
Del Negro spent his best six years as a player in the NBA in San Antonio but left the team after the 1997-98 season and missed the Spurs’ first NBA title in 1999. He still talks to Popovich regularly and watches the Spurs' games as often as possible. After San Antonio beat the Lakers 121-97 last month, Del Negro smiled at a group of reporters after the game and said, “Did you watch the Spurs?! Whooo!”
“We’ve always kept in touch with each other,” Popovich said. “We’ll share things and try to support each other and everything because he’s a wonderful guy. He understood the game, he wasn’t very quick but he really knew how to play the game, especially pick-and-roll and that kind of thing. He knew what was going on out there on the floor. When you’re around guys like that or Avery Johnson or Steve Kerr, you know if they want to they can coach someday because they really understand what’s going on.”
Popovich couldn’t remember if he talked about coaching with Del Negro at the end of Del Negro’s career in San Antonio, but figured it probably came up in conversation at some point.
“I assume I did. It was so long ago,” Popovich said. “I do that with a lot of my players to see what they want to do when they’re done. Some guys want to do [it] and other guys are smart enough to realize they [don’t] want to do it because there’s more to life than coaching.”
Normally when two teams meet in the playoffs, especially for the first time, the easy thing to do is go back to the season series between the teams to get an indication of how the playoff series might play out. Doing so for this series would be a complete waste of time.
The Clippers and Spurs first met this season in San Antonio on Dec. 28 in a game the Spurs would win 115-90. How long ago was that? Well, you know the Clippers’ much-talked about second unit of Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans, Nick Young, Mo Williams and Eric Bledsoe? Only Williams played in that game and Martin and Young were months from even joining the Clippers at that point.
Both teams would meet again at Staples Center on Feb. 18 in a game the Spurs won 103-100 in overtime. This was the game in which the Clippers held a 95-92 lead with 9.5 seconds left and were in-bounding the ball. Ryan Gomes made a bad pass to Chris Paul, who made an even worse pass to San Antonio’s Gary Neal, who tied the game and won it in overtime. Gomes hasn’t left the bench since.
The Clippers finally won the last meeting of the season in San Antonio, 120-108, on March 9. Tony Parker did not play in that game but Williams did hit seven three-pointers and scored 33 points for the Clippers. It was the Clippers' first victory in San Antonio in a decade, ending a stretch of futility that spanned 18 games. The game, however, took place before the trade deadline deals that would bring Young to the Clippers and Stephen Jackson to the Spurs.
Not only are the rosters different than when these two teams last met, but they’re both playing at different levels than when they last met. The Spurs have won their last 14 games, winning by an average margin of more than 17 points per game. Meanwhile, the Clippers, coming off their first ever Game 7 playoff win, on the road no less, are playing with more confidence than at any point this season. Needless to say, results of games in December will mean little when these two teams begin their playoff series on Tuesday.
The Clippers didn’t waste any time getting ready for their series against the Spurs, landing in San Antonio about four hours after beating Memphis on Sunday.
Even after winning their first playoff series in six years, the Clippers didn’t have much time to celebrate. Not only were they preparing for the top-seeded Spurs but they needed to continue to rehabilitate the injuries Paul and Blake Griffin suffered in Game 5 of that series against Memphis. Paul suffered a strained right hip flexor that limited him in Game 6 and Griffin suffered a sprained left knee that made it hard for him to stay on the floor in the fourth quarter of Game 6 and again in Game 7, where he played just 1:39 of the final period.
While the Clippers will try to heal up and refocus for the Spurs in 48 hours, the Spurs have had the past eight days to rest and recuperate before the second round.
“That series was tough, it was a slugfest,” Griffin said. “You were just kind of out there, hitting people and hoping you wouldn’t get a foul called. We get a day and a half of rest, which should be good for us. ... We have some guys that are a little beat up, but that’s just how it is. A lot of teams have that right now. We can’t use being tired as an excuse. We have to come out and play like we haven’t played in a week like the Spurs.”