Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 3/24/12
LOS ANGELES When Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro wrapped up his meeting with reporters Saturday morning before making his way to the gallows er, the basketball court he smiled and had a message for the room. "Everybody relax," Del Negro said. "Take a deep breath. It's OK." After losing three in row and moving perilously close to the edge of the playoff race, the Clippers returned home looking rudderless and with Del Negro standing on ice that was as thin as a supermodel. Relax? Breathe? For a day, the Clippers did, trouncing Memphis 101-85 in what was their most complete performance since Chancey Billups' season-ending injury six weeks ago. The sieve-like defense tightened, especially early in the game. The offense no longer looked as stagnant as a desert watering hole, the ball moving inside and out. And by the end of the afternoon Del Negro's job security, like the Clippers' playoff status, was a little less tenuous. "Eventually, you've got to be sick of getting punched in the mouth," Del Negro said. "You've got to be the aggressor, and not just for five minutes, not just for a quarter. You've got to be that way for the whole game." Now, the question is whether the Clippers can string together more of these performances. Whether they do will likely have a say in whether Del Negro finishes out the week, let alone the season, especially with games against Phoenix on Wednesday and Utah on Saturday, red-hot teams that are nipping at the heels of the Clippers in the Western Conference. Clippers general manager Neil Olshey has declined to comment on Del Negro's status since an ESPN report Thursday quoted an unnamed source saying he had lost the locker room. "Don't ask me anything about Vinny," Olshey said, throwing up his hands as a pair of reporters approached him before the game. Asked if a public vote of confidence would help, Del Negro shrugged. "I don't care," he said. "It doesn't matter to me." Del Negro met with Olshey for two hours just before lunchtime Friday, after the team returned in the wee hours of the morning from New Orleans, where the Clippers had lost for the third time in three days. They reconvened in the evening with the coaching staff. There was a renewed emphasis Saturday on getting the ball into the paint instead of swinging it around the perimeter. This has not been easy, as teams have begun to pack their defenses to prevent Chris Paul from getting into the paint and crowding Blake Griffin. A decision was also made to have Randy Foye replace Nick Young in the starting lineup, because with Mo Williams (sprained toe) out he was to visit a specialist later Saturday to determine how much time he might miss Young could fill Williams' role as instant offense off the bench. It worked better, with the Clippers getting to the line 33 times, taking just 16 three-pointers and turning the ball over 11 times against the league leaders in steals. Paul, who had 13 assists (against one turnover) to go with his 19 points, and Griffin (20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists) looked rejuvenated despite the continued extra attention. Young chipped in with 16 points and Foye added 18, including 4-of-8 from three-point range. But the foundation for their most comfortable victory since the All-Star break was built on the defensive end. The Clippers may not have reminded anyone of the early '90s Pistons, but they moved their feet, they communicated, there was backside help when they fronted Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and they got their hands in passing lanes, coming up with eight steals. "That's the things you've got to have," said Griffin, who may have served as the catalyst for the defense. After struggling to stop the likes of Tyler Hansbrough, Serge Ibaka and Jason Smith in losses to Indiana, Oklahoma City and New Orleans, respectively, Griffin mostly shined against a more formidable opponent in Randolph. Griffin worked hard to keep Randolph from setting up deep on the block, and when Randolph worked his way down, Griffin stood tall. The result: Randolph made just 6 of 16 shots and went to the free-throw line just twice. After opponents shot 53 percent in the three consecutive losses, the Clippers held Memphis to 17 points in the first quarter, by which time they owned a 16-point lead, and 42.3 percent shooting in the game. "It's huge because our defense has been horrendous pretty much for a few games here, just giving up everything: threes, layups, free throws, stuff like that," Paul said. "But tonight we put it together." By the end of the afternoon, when Young scored on a 360-degree reverse layup, there were smiles on the court and on the bench. Even Del Negro shared a laugh with assistant coach Marc Iavoroni. Relax? Breathe? "It was definitely a test today coming out to see if we were not physically ready but more so mentally," Young said. "You have to smile out there a little bit because everyone is on edge. Today was a step in the right direction in getting the fun back."
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