Clippers thrive under improved ex-Bulls coach Del Negro

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Clippers thrive under improved ex-Bulls coach Del Negro

Former Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro wasn't exactly viewed as the next coming of Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson when he was in Chicago. The current Clippers head coach isn't regarded as one of the league's best on the sidelines now, but a year after advancing to the second round of the playoffs, his team has even more expectations and thus far, is living up to them by leading the Pacific Division and for the time being, holding the crown of best team in Los Angeles over the turmoil-ridden Lakers.
"Just the experience of doing it. When I started here, I had never coached before. Thrown into a great franchise with great history in a great sports town, you jump in and you go for it. I learned a lot, very fortunate, very grateful to Jerry for the opportunity, but I think you get better every year. You're always looking to get better individually and make your team better, but there's a lot of decisions you have to make. Quick decisions, whether it's practice, games, game decisions, there's just a lot of stuff.
"I have to continually grow as a coach. I'm coaching here and that's what you have to have the mindset to do. I've picked the brains of a lot of veteran coaches, but you also have to have your own philosophies, your own styles and what you believe in, and every year is different. Every team is different. The personnel you're given is different, but it's about putting your team in an area of strength and try to win games. We're doing a better job of that and I think my staff has done a very good job, but we've got a long way to go," Del Negro said before Tuesday's game.
"It gives you a chance to win. If you're developing, you're losing, usually. You've got to have a good mixture. I think what we have on the roster is a good balance. We have some younger guys that need developing, we have some guys in their prime and we have some veteran guys, so there's good balance in the locker room, which I think is important. But we have a mixture of some things. The versatility now, I think, is very important with our roster, as well. We can go small, we can go big, we can play fast, slow. We have some different variations, which obviously helps us as a unit to put us in an area of strength."
Del Negro's players believe that as the Clippers rise to prominence, the coach is also improving.
"I think he trusts us a lot more," All-Star point guard Chris Paul, in his second season with the Clippers and playing for Del Negro, said after the team's Tuesday morning shootaround at the United Center. "Obviously that builds with being with a team a little bit longer and now, he sees in our locker room how we have me, Caron Butler, Willie Green, Matt Barnes, 'Chaunce' Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill and all that, so guys that know the game and have been around the league.
Fellow All-Star Blake Griffin, the current Western Conference player of the week, chimed in: "As our team has adapted, so has he. My first year here, we were one of the youngest teams in the league--I think we were the second youngest--so it was a lot of teaching, a lot of coaching for him and now, it's a lot more about managing time, managing players because you have so many veterans and guys that have so much experience."
Jamal Crawford, the former Bulls guard, in his first season with Clippers and being coached by Del Negro, concurred: "Unbelievable. I love it. It's the most fun I've had since I was in high school. He gives me a lot of freedom, he trusts me on the court. We have a great rapport. We talk about everything and he knows how to communicate with his players, and I love playing for him."
"We're not surprised because we felt like before the season, we had a chance to do something special and right now, it hasn't been all gravy," continued the early-season favorite for the league's Sixth Man of the Year award and leader of the Clippers' potent bench. "We've had some tough home losses that we thought we shouldn't have had and a tough road trip last time. But we bounced back from that, put another streak and hopefully we can continue keeping that going.
The high-flying Clippers handed the Bulls arguably their worst loss of the young season--not the most gut-wrenching; those were narrow home defeats to Central Division rivals Milwaukee and Indiana--on the November "Circus Trip" by getting out in transition and breaking out their "Lob City" routine. They plan to do much of the same in order to pull off a season sweep Tuesday night at the United Center.
"We can't let their defense get set. I think that's what makes us so dangerous, is that we're explosive in transition. We've been at home, not so much at home, so we can't let them get set," Paul explained. "I love their defense. Everybody plays with a defensive intensity and that's why they're so good."
Crawford added: "To get as many easy baskets as possible. The Bulls are tough, they're really tough. They play tough defense, they grind it out. No game is ever over. They're a blue-collar team and they play hard every single possession, and I think that comes from Coach Thibs. He does a great job with those guys and they all believe, and buy into what he's telling them."
Crawford, a childhood buddy of Bulls backup point guard Nate Robinson--the Seattle natives also played together at Rainier Beach High School, as well as with the Knicks--also discussed his longtime friend's development as a player. While Bulls fans may occasionally agonize over Robinson's shot selection, Crawford says he's actually improved a lot in that area and is conscious of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau's disciplinary influence.
"Not with Coach Thibs; he doesn't play that. No, he's definitely improved in that area. As a high school freshman, he'd shoot a left-handed three in the game, so he's definitely improved, that's for sure," he said. "It's amazing to think, playing high school together, then playing four years together. It's unheard of. I think the bond will always be there, because of that alone.
"I think he's fit in well with the Bulls," Crawford added. "With Nate, no matter where he's at, his personality's going to rub off on the team and they're all going to fall in love with him. To know Nate is to love him. If you just look at him from afar, you're like, 'Oh, this kid. What is he doing out there?' But his teammates run through a wall for him, they love him and everywhere he goes, it's the same way. It's contagious and he plays hard. He loves to play basketball. Every time he's on the court, it's a joy for him, so I'm happy for him."
Paul was a teammate of Bulls shooting guard Marco Belinelli and has kept in touch with the Italian sharpshooter. He made note of Belinelli's recent success.
"'Belli's' been hooping and I'm happy to see that because he's a real good friend of mine, but hopefully not tonight," he said. "He's one of the best shooters you'll ever see and the thing is, Belli can shoot off the move, he can shoot standstill and stuff like that, so I think a lot of the time, it's confidence and rhythm with him. But earlier in the season, I think a lot of the shots he normally makes, he missed, so I'm not surprised to see him playing well.
"I talk to Belli all the time, but this situation was actually better for Belli here. Belli's a great guy, somebody I loved playing with for that year in New Orleans.
Griffin, who sat out his entire "true" rookie season with a severe knee injury, talked about his own recovery process and expressed his confidence in injured Bulls superstar Derrick Rose returning to form.
Said Griffin, whose only NBA coach has been Del Negro: "The monotony of it is the hardest part of recovery. You're doing the exact same thing, the exact same exercises, day in and out, and top of that, to have to sit and watch basketball games that you're supposed to be playing in. It's tough, but if you really put in the work and you really do the things that they ask you every single day, you'll come back 100 percent and I have no doubt that D-Rose will."
One of Del Negro's former Bulls players, Kirk Hinrich, will suit up Tuesday after suffering a left-elbow injury during the first half of Saturday's home win over the Knicks, a game he didn't participate in after halftime. Hinrich practiced Monday and said then that he'd play against the Clippers, something Thibodeau lauded him for before Tuesday's contest.
"It says a lot about his toughness, I think. Kirk's one of those guys, I don't measure him statistically," Thibodeau said of Hinrich one of five current Bulls--Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and the sidelined Rose are the others--to also play for Del Negro. "I measure him by how he's running the team, how he's leading our defense and he's played well all season long."

[PHOTO] Joe Maddon, Miguel Montero patch things up over a drink

[PHOTO] Joe Maddon, Miguel Montero patch things up over a drink

Despite the Cubs ending their 108-year World Series drought, Miguel Montero made offseason headlines for all the wrong reasons when he complained about his role in the Cubs' 2017 championship campaign.

Montero criticized Maddon's communication skills, catching rotation and bullpen decision-making after the team's Grant Park celebration. Maddon brushed off the criticism, and last week at spring training Montero said he hadn't spoke with the Cubs' skipper.

That tension appears to be all but a thing of the past, as Montero posted this picture of him and his manager sharing a drink together sporting nothing but smiles.

It's safe to say Montero would describe his relationship with Maddon now as: #WeAreGood.

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks clash with Wild tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks clash with Wild tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Minnesota Wild tonight on CSN and streaming live on CSNChicago.com. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

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Five Things to Watch:

1. Road warriors.

The Blackhawks have won six straight games away from the United Center, and are looking to make it a seventh in Minnesota tonight. They've scored the game's first goal in four of those wins, and in the other two, overcame 1-0 deficits to beat Dallas 5-3 and Edmonton 5-1, the latter of which they scored five unanswered goals.

2. Corey Crawford vs. Devan Dubnyk.

Crawford hasn't quite been the same since undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Dec. 3, but he turned in probably his best outing since then in the Blackhawks' last meeting against Minnesota on Feb. 8 when he stopped 35 of 38 shots in a 4-3 overtime win. He essentially stole two points, and prevented the Wild from picking up the extra one. Across from him tonight will be Dubnyk, who leads the league in wins (32), goals against average (1.97) and save percentage (.934).

3. Jonathan Toews on fire.

After a tough offensive drought earlier in the season that lasted longer than expected, the Blackhawks captain has six goals and 10 assists in his last 12 games, and upped his point total to 37, which now ranks fifth on the team. In the last meeting against Minnesota two weeks ago, Toews had a three-point night and scored the game winner in overtime. 

4. Mikael Granlund among league's most underrated players.

File Granlund under the category of players who don't get enough attention. He has 17 goals and 36 assists in 58 games this season, and his 53 points is tied with Jeff Carter and Artemi Panarin for 13th in the NHL's scoring race. The next highest point total on the Wild is Eric Staal with 45, an eight-point gap between him and Granlund. The 24-year-old forward registered his first career hat trick earlier this month, and also had a 12-game point streak just two weeks ago.

5. Ryan Hartman's closing in on 15 goals.

In Saturday's 3-1 loss to Edmonton, Hartman defended his teammate by fighting an Oilers defenseman that was practically twice his size. He called it a "no-brainer" to stick up for Tanner Kero and did well in the scrap, but it led to an Oilers power play and 10-minute misconduct which didn't do the Blackhawks any favors. He responded in a great way Sunday by scoring the game's first goal that helped his team win 5-1 in Buffalo. The next goal he scores will be No. 15, which would give the Blackhawks six 15-plus goal scorers on the year. They had only four a season ago.

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