LOS ANGELES –-- Vinny Del Negro ripped into his team.
It was nothing new. He had done it before after similarly embarrassing losses earlier this season, but there seemed to be a different tone in his voice after he rattled off the reasons why the Houston Rockets, without James Harden, were able to beat his Los Angeles Clippers 98-81 last Saturday.
“They played harder than we did,” Del Negro said. “We were terrible. Our effort was terrible, our attitude was terrible, our urgency was terrible. Very disappointed. I didn’t see the fight in us tonight, and we need guys to step up.”
Del Negro will be the first one to defend his team and his style when outsiders talk about the Clippers’ lack of a half-court offense or their pathetic 3-point defense or any other shortcomings they might have, but on this night his team didn’t give him much to work with even if he wanted to find a glimmer of a silver lining.
The Clippers only have eight games left in the season and are fighting for the third seed in the West and home-court advantage in the first round, and yet they played like a team with everything locked up and nothing to prove.
“We’re fighting for a spot, and we come out with that second-half -- pretty much the whole game -- effort. It was poor.” Del Negro said. “I know it’s the fourth game in five nights, but that’s no excuse. We’ve got plenty of depth. No excuses. I don’t believe in that.”
There are no excuses, and pretty soon it won’t even matter if the Clippers want to rattle off all the excuses for their disappointing second half. After an NBA-best 32-9 start to the season, the Clippers are 17-16 during the second half of the season. In the month of March they’re 7-7 and recently went three weeks without winning consecutive games.
As great as the Clippers were during the first half of the season, they’ve basically been a .500 team since the All-Star break, and Del Negro has every right to light into his team -- because for all his shortcomings as a coach, he can’t make the Clippers want to be great. He can’t coach effort. If the Clippers want to lay down against Houston in the last game of a long road trip, there’s only so much he can do.
That’s why these final eight games of the season are so critical for the Clippers and their future. They’ve been one of the top five teams in the league all season and seemed like a lock to be the third seed in the West last month, but that is unraveling now. If they finish with the fifth-best record in the West and have to start the playoffs on the road against Denver or Memphis, they could be one-and-done in the postseason.
Suddenly, a team on the rise could be taking a big step back, which will no doubt force the Clippers' management to take a big step back themselves this offseason when assessing this team and who is and isn't on it.