There was a moment two years ago that I’ll never forget. I was in the Clippers locker room before a game, digesting the white board that had Vinny Del Negro’s scribblings all over it. Now, examining the white board in a locker room is one of the many unwritten rules of the media — you can do it, but you can’t report on it, and really you’re supposed to be sly about looking at it.
But of course, being young and stupid and not knowing the rules (all still true), I was not being sly. I was, in fact, standing directly in front of it, reading it word for word when…
“What are you doing?
My heart stopped. I knew that voice.
“You can’t understand any of that stuff anyway.”
That was kind of how it was with Vinny Del Negro for a year. He always enjoyed playfully (at least I hoped) busting my chops. I could only see that moment as pretty funny and a little embarrassing back then, but now I look at it in another light.
I’ve realized that there are three levels of understanding a coach.
The first level is not understanding a coach at all. I don’t understand Lionel Hollins. I can’t even comprehend how inept he was tonight. I don’t understand how he could be so blind to so many phases of the game. I don’t understand.
The second level of understanding is quite different — it’s understanding everything. Despite what Del Negro said two years ago, I do feel like I understand him and what he does perfectly. Del Negro, at his core, is a reactionary coach. That can be good and bad.
There was an example tonight of when that looks great. When Hollins sent Jon Leuer (the 12th Grizzly to play in a freaking playoff game) in to issue an intentional foul, Del Negro countered by taking out all his poor free throw shooters. It was a “gotcha” moment, one that served as a microcosm for what happened in all the minutes before.
If there is a fire, Del Negro can usually put it out. He calls great timeouts, and he has a sense of when a lineup, at least in that particular game, is hot. When he finds something that works in the moment, like running Jerryd Bayless through a litany of downscreens, he’ll keep doing it.
But Del Negro has to see it to believe in it. And even if I don’t agree with that, I understand that.
Still, it’s the third level of understanding that’s ideal, and it’s similar to the first level and yet completely different. I don’t want to be able to understand. I want the logic, and the playcalling, and the lineups and everything else to far exceed my knowledge base. I would love nothing more than to look at the whiteboard and not understand a damn thing, just like Del Negro said.
Del Negro was about as perfect as he could be tonight, and you could say the same about the Clippers. Shooting 55 percent against the league’s best defense? Winning the possession battle against a team that always wins the possession battle? The veterans making shots, Paul turning it on at the right time, the small lineup in the fourth?
It was perfect. Perfect for this game, perfect for this series. Vinny Del Negro does not operate on the highest rung of the coaching ladder. He isn’t on that third level I just described. But last year and once again tonight, he was a level above Lionel Hollins just by being logical, by making sense, and by being easy to understand.
If the Clippers win the coaching battle, they win this series. That won’t hold true every series, but Memphis is already at such a disadvantage that they can’t afford to lose in that area. Think about it. The Grizzlies thrive on turnovers — the Clippers have the safest and smartest point guard in basketball. The Clippers defense gives up open 3-pointers — the Grizzlies can’t make them and don’t look to get them. Zach Randolph wants to overpower his opponent — so does Blake Griffin. Everywhere you look, with the exception of Marc Gasol, it’s a push or a loss for the Grizzlies. They simply can’t afford to lose the coaching battle so handily.
I’ve accused the Clippers of being identity thieves all year long. They take what the other team does, and usually do it better. The lack of an identity or defined style of play is usually hidden by the superior talent. Tonight was no exception. The second-chance points, the lofty rebounding advantage, the physicality — all Grizzlies’ traits, all done better by the Clippers.
Simply “being better” has been this team’s calling card all year, but the Clippers become a serious contender when the head coach can join in on that fun, too.