OKLAHOMA CITY -- Not all that long ago, Vinny Del Negro's seat was on fire. On a scale of hot to boiling, it was lava. The Clippers were sliding, the issues were real and the panic legitimate. It wasn't a question of if Del Negro was gone, but when. There were reports he'd lost the locker room, reports that it he was a dead man walking and feelings around the league that the Clippers were bordering on complete implosion.
And then they just ripped off nine wins in 11 tries, including a most impressive 100-98 win in Oklahoma City Wednesday.
The Clippers went from a questionable playoff team, to an easy first round out, to now fairly firmly planted in the postseason as a likely top five seed and a team not many would be eager to see. Chris Paul is orchestrating as magnificently as ever, the team's defense has improved and role players like Kenyon Martin, Nick Young and Randy Foye are finding their ways to contribute. Oh, and Blake Griffin's of course still doing these type of things.
"It was just a great win," said Griffin of the Clips' victory in OKC. "The way we lost the other night in Memphis and the way the standings look right now was a good opportunity for us to play our best. To come here in a hostile environment and to beat this caliber of a team is a good win for us."
Not that anything really needed more cementing after the Clippers' recent run of success, but the team might be peaking. The two losses came against the Grizzlies in Memphis and against the Lakers in a hard fought game. They have recent wins over Memphis, Dallas, OKC, Utah and Phoenix. They're playing harder, playing smarter and executing better.
Is Del Negro now a wonderful coach? No, not really. But there's no denying the team has hit a new stride. Late game execution was once a crutch, but now is a an asset. It helps though when you have a guy like Chris Paul, who scored 31 against the Thunder including the go-ahead layup with 8.8 seconds left.
"He has the competitive edge pm just about everything," Del Negro said of Paul. "His demeanor and his attitude and his approach in everything rubs off on guys. Tonight he was locked in."
Paul was fantastic, but it was the overall resiliency that was most impressive. The Thunder had L.A. down six, eight or 10 a lot of the game. After the Clippers finally took the lead with a Randy Foye 3 with about eight minutes left, OKC immediately responded with a 5-0 spurt to go back up four. Instead of folding at the mercy of the Thunder's bevy of clutch performers, the Clips rose up with a 9-0 run of their own to put OKC in a catch up position. It was a big response from a team that appears to be coming together a bit.
It's certainly not a time for the Clippers to raise a premature "mission accomplished" banner or anything. They have unfinished business and are only a game and a half back of the Lakers for the three-seed. They have work to do and if a Kevin Durant 3-pointer drops as the final seconds ticked off Wednesday, the Clips would've come out losers yet again in a tight game. Didn't happen this time around, which maybe means they're turning a corner. Better late than never.