LOS ANGELES -- When Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro explains how angry he gets, he likes to smile, look you in the eyes and say, “I am Italian.”
It’s essentially Del Negro’s three-word explanation for a coaching style and a temperament that was born from living under the same roof of Vince and Peg Del Negro in Springfield, Mass. Vince, who was a star basketball player in high school and college, expected the best out of his son, and that’s what Vinny expects from his players.
Of course, it was easier for Vince to get the best out of Vinny during the countless hours they spent in their driveway on Fountain Street than for Del Negro to get the best out of his players now on nightly basis.
Del Negro knows it isn’t realistic to get that kind of effort from NBA players during each outing in an 82-game season, but the way his Clippers played during a 108-101 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers just 48 hours after losing to the Golden State Warriors 114-110 had his Italian blood especially boiling.
“We haven’t done anything,” Del Negro said. “Everything right now is on paper, and that doesn’t win you a lot of games. You have to go out there and perform, and you have to go out there and produce and execute, and we haven’t done that the last two games.”
Clippers guard Chris Paul understands the Clippers have a target on their backs this season. He said as much after Saturday’s loss to Golden State, stating it would be a wake-up call for those who didn’t realize that yet. On Monday night, it appeared that most of his teammates didn’t quite get that call, as the team had a season-high 25 turnovers and were outrebounded 43-38.
“We don’t have any rookies in here,” Paul said. “I played on a team that went 56-26; Chauncey [Billups] and Lamar [Odom] have won championships. We’re pros and we have to act like it and approach the game like that. The fourth quarter we started to play with a chip on our shoulder and we have to figure out how to do that from [the] jump.”
For the second straight game, the Clippers looked disinterested early on and fell behind by double digits, only to tie the game late yet fail to get the job done. The Clippers’ furious finishes more than anything else show what the team is capable of if they are engaged early in the game.
“We get to the fourth quarter and then we start picking up our energy and denying the basketball and picking up the tempo,” Del Negro said. “We got to get to that level much earlier in the game, and we haven’t done that in the last two games. We’re in no position to do that.”
The best statistical example of the Clippers’ lack of energy is that they rank toward the bottom of the league in rebounds per game (28th) and points allowed per game (22nd). After beating the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers to start the season and holding both teams to less than 96 points, the Clippers allowed the Warriors and Cavaliers to average 111 points while being outrebounded in both games.
“Our rebounding has been an issue for us, and with the athletes we have it shouldn’t be,” Del Negro said. “We have to be more physical. We have to do a better job overall. As a group, our guards have to get in there and rebound the ball. We have to continually work on that, but there are no easy answers to this. You have to work through it and handle the adversity of the season.”
The biggest mental adjustment the Clippers need is understanding they are no longer an afterthought on teams' schedules. Opposing NBA teams come into Staples Center just as motivated to beat the Clippers now as they do the Lakers. If anything, younger teams such as the Warriors and Cavaliers get an added satisfaction in showing off their dunks and athleticism against “Lob City.”
“There’s not going to be a game where teams are not gunning for us,” Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. “We have to know that and we have to have the mindset that everyone is coming for us and we have to be coming for them even harder. It starts in practice and it starts before the game even starts. It starts with our preparation, and we’ll start to do a better job of that.”
Del Negro understands nothing is won on paper, but as he looks at the final box score from Monday he knows the talent is on this Clippers team to be successful. It is now up to the players in the box score to live up to their names and figure out how good they can be.
“Just go out there and play hard,” Del Negro said. “You’re going to make mistakes, but you got to play hard. There’s no reason why that shouldn’t happen. It sounds real easy; it’s a very difficult game to play well at a high level, but we have enough talent and enough leadership. When you don’t play hard you never know what’s working out there.”