LOS ANGELES — Vinny Del Negro’s memory isn’t great. That’s probably a good thing when you’re the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers and constantly being asked about a star-crossed history you had nothing to do with.
Del Negro is always quick to remind anyone who is curious that the Clippers’ history is not his history. He wasn’t with the Clippers when Danny Manning, Ken Norman and Bo Kimble were on the team, and no one in the Clippers’ current locker room was either.
On Sunday night, however, Del Negro’s history and the Clippers’ history finally crossed paths.
After the Clippers beat the Utah Jazz 107-96 for their 17th straight win, the Clippers became only the third team in NBA history to go 16-0 in a calendar month, joining the 1995-96 San Antonio Spurs and the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who went on to win a record 33 games in a row.
Del Negro was on that 1995-96 Spurs team that won 17 games in a row and went 16-0 in March. Del Negro remembers he was a starter on that team, but don’t ask him to break down the streak game by game.
“I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday let alone what happened in 1995,” Del Negro said. “Are you kidding me? I remember we started the season slow that year and took off after that.
“I recall I played with David Robinson, and that took care of a lot of problems. I was real fortunate to play with David for a long time, and when we went on that streak there were a lot of quality players on that team. There were a lot of NBA coaches on that team, too.”
There were actually five future NBA head coaches (Del Negro, Doc Rivers, Monty Williams and Avery Johnson), one future NBA assistant (Chuck Person) and one future NBA general manager (Del Demps) on that team.
“We had a special bunch of guys then,” Del Negro said. “And I feel we have a special bunch of guys in our locker room now.”
The Clippers have been hesitant to talk about it during the streak, but they certainly feel something special is happening in their locker room right now. After Sunday’s game, they could be heard jumping up and down just a little bit louder and a little bit longer than usual.
“Usually, when we win we jump up once or twice in the locker room,” Del Negro said. “Tonight we let them jump up and down three or four times. We let them have their fill, and now they’re in there playing their music and relaxing and enjoying it, and they deserve it.”
As Childish Gambino’s “R.I.P.” blared in the locker room, the players were more reserved than usual after the win. Gone were the players’ children who normally run around the locker room. In their place were ice buckets for the players’ feet. It has been a long month, and the players were in a more reflective mood after playing their last game of 2012.
This wasn’t a streak or a record they set out to achieve before the season or before the month. It’s simply a byproduct of the way they are playing now.
“It’s unreal,” Blake Griffin said. “It’s just something that keeps happening. We don’t really talk about it. It wasn’t like we said, ‘All right guys, let’s win all our games in December.’ It just kind of happened. … It’s been unreal how many different ways we’ve won and which guys have shown up and how they’ve shown up. Some guys haven’t scored and some guys have just played defense and have gotten stops and turnovers. It’s a selfless attitude the team has taken on and it’s fun. This is the most fun I’ve had playing basketball.”
On a team that seemingly finds different ways to win every night, the one constant every player talks about is having fun. It might seem simplistic, but given how little fun some of them had in previous seasons, it has been a breath of fresh air to players such as Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, who have had breakout seasons and sparked the best bench in the NBA.
“We definitely have something special here,” said Crawford, who is not only making a case for NBA Sixth Man of the Year honors, but his first All-Star berth after averaging 16.4 points this season. “Honestly, I don’t think I’ve felt this feeling being on a team since high school when we won the championship. I had a special feeling then. It didn’t matter who we played. The confidence and the closeness, it was something special and I haven’t felt that since then.”
History says the Clippers have something special, too. They became just the 17th team in league history to win 17 games in a row; of the previous 16 teams, nine went on to play in the NBA Finals.
It’s a reality that is still hard to fathom for anyone who has been around the Clippers longer than two seasons, but it’s part of a new reality Del Negro and the Clippers are trying to create.
“When people say who they’ve been, they haven’t been that way since I’ve been here,” Del Negro said of the Clippers. “They haven’t been that way since these guys have been in the locker room. I don’t put any of that stuff on them. I don’t look at the past. I look at the past to learn, but I don’t look at the way the organization was run back then.”
As great as the Clippers’ winning streak is, Del Negro doesn’t want his team to suffer the same fate his Spurs did in the 1995-96 season. That team failed to win their 18th game in a row and eventually lost to the Jazz in the second round. He has bigger plans for the Clippers this year and in the future.
“As we keep winning, hopefully it will be easy to sell this because people want to be around winners,” he said. “We have a good group in there, but it’s a group that knows they have to get better to continually win and put us in a situation where we’re in this position year in and year out. I want to do this every year. I don’t want this to be once in a while. This has got to be a staple of how we go about our business.”