Vinny Del Negro: I relished pressure

LOS ANGELES -- Tension surrounding the Clippers' locker room peaked three weeks ago as reports questioning coach Vinny Del Negro's future with the team surfaced and its once-promising playoff hopes began to fade.

But Del Negro, reflecting extensively about the midseason adversity in an interview Sunday with ESPNLosAngeles.com, was able to keep the distractions at bay while he says he was hearing a different story from within the organization.

"I didn't miss a blink. I kept on my path," Del Negro said. "What has to be done has to be done. I'm Italian. Are you kidding me?"

Del Negro's focus helped the Clippers turn their season around. They won 11 of 13 games and pulled into a comfortable spot in the Western Conference's playoff race.

"Do things irritate me sometimes? Yeah," Del Negro said. "But that doesn't ever stop me from preparing and doing the things I have to do to support my players and do my job.

"I love the challenge of it. I loved it as a player, and I loved it as a coach."

For Del Negro, there weren't many lonelier walks than the one he took into the arena on the morning of March 24 before a game against the Memphis Grizzlies.

Shooting guard Chauncey Billups had gone down with a season-ending Achilles injury, and there was even a very real danger the team could miss the playoffs and then be tasked with convincing forward Blake Griffin to sign a long-term extension.

Del Negro heard all of it, or at least enough to know why everyone around him that morning seemed to be whispering in hushed tones.

But as bad as things seemed from the outside, everything Del Negro was being told by the people who would determine his fate was far less dire.

"That was not coming from [owner Donald] Sterling. I talked to Mr. Sterling," Del Negro said. "This kind of stuff comes with the territory. But I also knew it wasn't even close to being accurate."

According to sources familiar with the Clippers' thinking, there was some internal talk about whether to replace Del Negro midway through the season when the team dropped 11 of 19 games. But those talks never became actionable because Sterling continued to strongly support Del Negro, and the organization wanted to give him the opportunity to work through the issues that befell the team following Billups injury.

While the internal support was personally meaningful and he mostly blocked out the external criticism, Del Negro admitted the manner in which the reports of his demise came out was "irritating."

"I'm just not a big fan about 'sources,' " Del Negro said. "If you have something to say or you're going to attack me about my job, about my livelihood, about my family, then at least talk to me before to get my opinion, to get my answers.

"That would be me. I'd be more professional. That's what irritated me more, that someone would attack me like that with 'sources,' not matter who they are, so that bothered me."

But Del Negro's approach seemed to engender respect in the Clippers' locker room. The team won six straight games beginning with its 101-86 blowout of Memphis on March 24, and then 11 of 13.

Entering a showdown with first-place Oklahoma City on Monday night, the Clippers stood fourth in the West, seven games behind the Thunder.

Asked whether the Clippers' recent success may have saved his job, Del Negro laughed and said: "I don't think about that at all. I mean, so what? At the end of the day, I know how hard I work and how well I prepare. I know how this business works. That's not going to change my approach or how I do things."

Then there's the criticism that he's on a similar trajectory to his first coaching stint in Chicago, when he helped coax a young team to a 41-41 record in 2009 and a playoff berth, but was replaced when expectations for that group grew to another level. Under Tom Thibodeau in 2010, the Bulls won 62 games.

"It's not a good comparison," Del Negro said. "It was a totally different team [from 2009 to 2010]. Derrick Rose was a rookie. Luol [Deng] missed part of the season. [Carlos] Boozer wasn't there. Taj Gibson I got, he was the 26th player in the draft and made first-team all-rookie, I had Kirk Hinrich, they let Ben Gordon leave, we had Tyrus Thomas, Brad Miller. The team was totally different.

"For two years we kept getting rid of players so we could go get Boozer, and the guys they needed to get to build around Derrick and Joakim [Noah] and Luol. That's what you do. That's what we want to do here, too, with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul as the two pillars."

But widespread perception remains that it's the same.

"I don't explain it because people aren't going to understand it if they don't want to understand it," Del Negro said. "You've got to look at the teams. I loved my experience there. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Derrick and Joakim and Luol and Kirk Hinrich. All the guys that played hard for me. They had struggled before I got there and we got our spirit back, we improved and made the playoffs twice, which no one expected."

Just making the playoffs might not be enough to satisfy expectations this year. Del Negro said he feels the Clippers have a good chance to have a deep playoff run this year, but stressed that the team isn't "complete" yet.

"We're a long ways, in my mind, towards being complete," he said. "But that's what I like about it.

"Our expectations are through the roof. Some are warranted and some, I think, are not. It's very hard to win at this level. This organization and this team have not won consistently. That's what I'm trying to instill in these guys.

"This is the first step of a process and if you believe in a process and you believe in consistent success and giving your fans something to be proud about, it's a daily process."

And if they fail to meet those expectations? If this ends up looking a whole lot like the Chicago situation?

Del Negro shrugged.

"I want the ball," Del Negro said. "I'd rather be out there doing what I love, taking a swing at something than sitting on the sidelines second-guessing everything someone else is trying to do. Everything in life is easy until you try to do it yourself. I know I've improved as a coach in a lot of areas."