- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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He knows what it's like to try to mold a championship team with a group of players assembled over one offseason. He knows what it's like to try to change the mindset of a team that has missed the playoffs and finished below .500 in recent years. And he knows what it's like to have expectations turned upside down in a matter of days after acquiring a couple of All-Star players to join the cornerstone of the franchise.
Rivers' experience with the Celtics in 2008 culminated with an NBA championship. After the Clippers' 94-85 loss to the Celtics on Monday night, their eighth loss in their past 12 games, it's not looking like Del Negro's season will finish the same way, and Rivers has a good idea why.
"I think one thing we had that was different than Miami and the Clippers was we had guys who were veterans," Rivers said. "[A championship] was the only thing they were playing for. They had already had their day, if you know what I mean. I thought from a coaching standpoint it was easy to get them to buy in, to let go of some shots, to forfeit some minutes and defend as a team."
That's easier said than done with a team as young as the Clippers, who have squandered late leads recently with the same ease as they completed lob dunks earlier in the season.
"When you have younger guys, it's not as easy," Rivers said. "They think it's going to last forever, and that urgency sometimes is not there. We had a group that had a sense of urgency about them. I think Miami has that this year, when you see them play. That's the hard part."
After the game, Chris Paul, who finished with 14 points and five assists, wasn't making excuses for his young team.
"I don't care about that veteran stuff," Paul said. "We have enough guys who have been around in this league, so I'm not going for that one. We just have to get better."
It is no coincidence that the Clippers' recent collapse has coincided with the loss of Chauncey Billups for the season after a ruptured Achilles tendon. The Clippers have gone 8-10 without him and are 8-8 in games decided by five points or fewer. If the Clippers had a big three comparable to the Celtics' in 2008, Billups was their Ray Allen. On a young team filled with players who have never made the playoffs or haven't gone very far in them, Billups had won an NBA title, was named the Finals MVP and helped his teams advance to the conference finals or further in seven consecutive seasons.
"Chauncey was a huge loss and it's not even on the floor," Rivers said. "Chris is their best player and their leader, but I think you listen to Chauncey even more. Losing Chauncey was huge."
The Clippers are expecting Billups to return to the team this week to continue his rehab. Many on the team are hoping his presence in the locker room and on the bench during games will improve the mood of a team that is slowly unraveling.
"I love Chauncey to death, but he's not coming through those doors anytime soon in a uniform," Paul said. "Hopefully he can help cheer us on when he's here, but he can't play. I hope he can help, I don't know."
Said Rivers: "When you have that suit and tie on, it's not the same. Players don't listen to guys in suit and ties, let me tell you, I know that from experience."
Billups found out he was done for the season the same day his friend Kenyon Martin, whom he recruited to sign with the team, was activated for his first game of the season, Feb. 8 in Cleveland.
The Clippers haven't been the same since. It isn't just that Billups is gone and Martin is trying to get acclimated to his new teammates, but both moves set off a domino effect throughout the roster.
Caron Butler has been a shell of his former self. He is averaging 7.2 points on 30.2 percent shooting from the field and 17.3 percent from behind the 3-point line. Through the first 25 games of the season, Butler had been averaging 15.3 points per game, shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from behind the arc. Quite simply, he no longer gets the same open looks on the weak side as he did when Billups was penetrating the gaps and causing defenses to respect him. That's something Randy Foye, who is starting in Billups' place, cannot do.
"With Chauncey out there, he is a great facilitator and he really understands how to distribute the ball out there," Butler said after Monday's game. "He knows how to create for a guy, and right now everyone is trying to find their niche. It's a work in progress, but we'll get through it."
Meanwhile, DeAndre Jordan's season has seen a decline since Martin essentially took his minutes in crucial situations and also pushed Reggie Evans, who provided an energy boost off the bench, further down the depth chart. Jordan has averaged 3.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 18.9 minutes since the end of February.
When a team is winning, slumps and substitution patterns are easily forgotten. When a team can't seem to get out of its own way late in games, however, they begin to fester.
"I think every individual has to look at themselves and understand what they can do better and collectively as a group understand what our role is and do it," Del Negro said. "That's what they have to do. It might be ringing hollow, but if you want to win, then you have to accept how to win.
"This group has never won as a group. This team was just put together with a lot of moving parts. It's a process and it's easy to sit back and point fingers, but I think we have good character guys."
The Clippers have more than just good character guys, they have one of the more talented teams in the NBA. But there is no direction or sense of urgency with this team. It has lost its way, and its once-promising season is now slipping away in the midst of a brutal stretch of 20 games in 31 days.
"Just watching the Clippers with all the talent they have, they're going to get it together," Rivers said. "It could be this year, it could be in a couple of years, who knows? But I don't think you can ever take a year for granted. If you have a shot, you have to take it."
Right now, Del Negro is just trying to win a game, which has been harder to do lately.
"We should be better and I think we will be," Del Negro said. "But talking about it and not responding the right way is another thing. We have to play better and I expect us to, and I think we are better than the way we've played."
A promising season fades as the Clippers go through growing pains.