On this day of maternal appreciation, the Clippers have emerged victorious from a grueling series against Memphis. If the Clippers had lost this extremely physical Game 7, there would have been no doubt about Vinny Del Negro’s future; he would have been fed to the Mama Grizzlies, never to be seen again (besides in the broadcast booth).
But history doesn’t always unfold how you would expect. Trailing by a point going into the final frame, the Clippers ran with a combination of bench-heavy fourth quarter lineups. As ClipperBlog’s very own Nick Flynt has pointed out on numerous occasions, the starting unit for the Clippers has been thoroughly outplayed by the Grizzlies at every juncture. The ineffective starting unit (Paul-Foye-Butler-Griffin-Jordan) played the first nine minutes of the third quarter with limited success. The fourth quarter, on the other hand, opened up with a lineup consisting exclusively of bench players (Bledsoe-Williams-Young-Martin-Evans) who managed to snatch the lead away from a desperate Memphis squad. The lead hovered in the high single digits for most of the quarter and much of the credit should go straight to Vinny Del Negro for learning not to be squeamish about playing his bench in crunch time.
During Game 6, the Clippers found themselves in a similar situation during the fourth quarter as in Game 7. The Clippers bench managed to grind out an eight point lead, only to see it squandered by a 10-0 Memphis run. The Clippers couldn’t halt the Grizzlies’ momentum and VDN only called a timeout once the lead was shaved down to one point. From there he inserted a hobbling Chris Paul back into the game only to see him stymied by an invigorated swarm of Memphis defenders. Over the next three minutes, four out of the five Clippers starters ended up out on the court. The collapse at Staples has been well-documented.
Game 7 was another story, both for Vinny Del Negro and the bench unit with whom he entrusted his own fate. Rather than waiting to call a timeout until the lead had all but vanished, Vinny preempted what seemed like an imminent momentum swing when the Clippers’ lead was trimmed to six. And instead of pulling an energy-laden bench lineup that matched up particularly well with the Grizzlies, Vinny rode them to victory while even getting (relatively) fancy with some offense for defense substitutions (Mo for Bledsoe and visa versa). The Clippers bench possessed a supermajority amongst all of the combinations of lineups used by VDN in the fourth quarter and it paid off. Vinny Del Negro learned that the starting unit was untenable for crunch time minutes against the physicality of the Grizzlies and he applied the lesson he learned. If the Clippers are going to have an outside shot at beating a polished Spurs team with more rings than the Clippers franchise has series victories, then Vinny needs to continue with the whole “learn and apply” gimmick.
It just might be time to cut the man some slack. After all, he did just win his first ever playoff series in dramatic fashion. With Gregg Popovich waiting just beyond the horizon, let’s just hope Vinny doesn’t have enough slack to hang himself.