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The Clippers' big exhale

3/24/2012

LOS ANGELES -- There's a distinct static that hovers over a team that's trapped in a downward spiral. You could feel that buzz on Saturday morning at Staples Center -- almost as if there was a fluorescent light tube on the fritz above Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro as he addressed the media prior to the Clippers' 101-85 win over Memphis.

Del Negro did his best to diffuse the tension, which was palpable as he fielded questions about his job security. He ran through the litany of reasons the Clippers are underperforming -- and stipulated that these weren't, of course, excuses -- then pledged on behalf of the team and coaching staff that everyone would do a better job going forward. He ended the presser with a wry smile.

"Nobody died," Del Negro said. "Everybody relax. Take a deep breath. It's OK."

How close to the precipice Del Negro stood heading into the opener of a five-game homestand is a matter of debate, but the Clippers' resounding performance on Saturday afternoon should cool the temperature beneath his seat. Intensity is a difficult thing to measure, and we often do so retroactively, ascribing wins to a heightened sense of urgency after the fact. But from the opening tip, Del Negro's team showed an edge.

The Grizzlies have made their living as a team that shrinks passing lanes, generates deflections and bottles up your half-court game, one reason they rank eighth defensively, despite having a couple of slow-footed big men and an undersized point guard. Yet on Saturday, the Clippers were the more aggressive defensive squad. They pounced on entry passes to Marc Gasol at the foul line, swiped at loose balls and ambushed the Grizzlies from the back side. Help was prompt and rotations were tight. DeAndre Jordan didn't stuff the stat sheet, but for a young player who has had his confidence stunted in recent weeks, he looked like the kind of defender who had observers calling him Tyson Chandler-esque at the outset of the season.

Offensively, the Clippers ran their usual staple of high ball screens and elbow sets on Saturday, but there was a little more diversity and intelligence to the offense. Chris Paul utilized his size to back down Mike Conley and attacked the Grizzlies in the slot, rather than confine the Clippers' offense to the sidelines that Memphis will gladly yield to ball handlers who want to risk suffocation.

As the Clippers' lead surpassed 20 points at the start of the fourth quarter, Del Negro continued to patrol the sidelines, yelling out play calls and gesturing to defenders to get into proper position. He looked like a coach fighting for his job, unwilling to leave the balance of the game to chance, even with an enormous cushion. When asked after the game about its import, Del Negro placed the win into the businesslike context of the standings, rather than an abstraction like confidence.

"It's such a tight race," Del Negro said. "Every win is big for us."

Particularly this one -- for both the Clippers' fortunes and their coach's prospects. Despite the firestorm that followed Del Negro around on the team's disastrous three-game road trip, during which they lost games in Indianapolis, Oklahoma City and New Orleans, the Clippers left Staples Center on Saturday afternoon as the No. 4 seed in the West. They have upcoming home games against New Orleans, Phoenix, Portland and Utah, all miserable road teams.

The Clippers still need to work out their systematic problems -- their 22nd-ranked defense that's never coalesced and a pokey offense that too often gets stuck in reverse. And while Del Negro might not be Clippers' coach of the distant future, Saturday's trouncing of Memphis means that he's still the coach of the present.