Coach’s status in question as Clips slide

The thrill is gone for the Clippers, but is that all?

They completed a back-to-back-to-back trip with another embarrassing loss, this one a 97-90 defeat to the woeful New Orleans Hornets, amid speculation that coach Vinny Del Negro’s job could be in jeopardy.

The dispiriting defeat ruined Chris Paul’s homecoming to the city where he was a source of civic pride. It also had to hurt the Clippers to see Chris Kaman, one of several assets dealt for Paul, put up 20 and 10. Adding injury to a string of insults, Mo Williams had to be carried off the court with an injury to his left big toe.

Most of the attention, though, focused on an ESPN report Thursday that amid the Clippers’ slide, tension between the players and Del Negro had increased to the point where he had lost the team, according to an unnamed source. A similarly unnamed player said Del Negro’s unwillingness to criticize the team’s two stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, had created "a big problem."

Del Negro did not deny that there is tension within the team as a result of the tailspin and players’ uncertainty in their roles as the team has added nine players since the lockout ended, including three in the past six weeks.

That has been apparent in the past week, after the players had an hour-long, closed-door meeting after losing to Phoenix and then Del Negro passionately called for them to become more invested after being routed Wednesday by Oklahoma City.

"When you’re losing games, everybody jumps on you," Del Negro said. "But if you can’t take the heat, you shouldn’t do the job. You have to win games — that’s what you’re measured on, and we haven’t played as well as I would like or anybody [would like]. Players are frustrated. I’m frustrated. But staying together and handling adversity — you’re going to get knocked down sometimes, but you’ve got to keep getting up."

Once again, the Clippers handled adversity like they were dribbling with boxing gloves. After getting blown out by Indiana and Oklahoma City, they blew a 13-point third-quarter lead to the Hornets because they played with too little of their head and too little heart.

They let New Orleans back in the game late in the third quarter by fouling too much. Paul spent nearly half of the fourth quarter on the bench in foul trouble, and their offense down the stretch looked like the panic attack. The Clippers missed all 10 of their 3-point attempts in the fourth quarter. The only player who seemed interested in taking a shot was Randy Foye, which was problematic because he was 1 for 14.

Griffin acknowledged what the Clippers’ body language has said for the past two weeks.

"We’ve got to find a way to put the fun back in it," Griffin said. "The fun we had the first however many games, when we were just going out and playing — it didn’t matter if we came off three games in a row, it didn’t matter how many games in how many days. We came out and played hard and we won."

The slide coincides with the loss of Chauncey Billups, who tore his Achilles tendon on Feb. 6. The Clippers have lost 14 of 25 games since, have slipped into a tie for sixth place with Denver in the tightly packed Western Conference and are just one game ahead of ninth-place Utah.

Del Negro, who is in the second year of a three-year contract, with next season being a team option, shrugged off the suggestion he had lost the team. He called the criticism of his handling of Paul and Griffin "ridiculous."

"I’m probably harder on Chris and Blake than anybody, and they should be held to a different standard because of the level of player they are," Del Negro said. "The best players can take coaching because they want to learn, they want to get better, and Blake and Chris obviously have shouldered a lot of the load for this team all year. When I hear these things, it’s funny to me because it’s just not accurate."

Questions about Del Negro’s job status are likely to continue Saturday, when the Clippers return home to play Memphis. While making a coaching change would be an extreme move with a condensed schedule and a roster with nine new players, the Knicks have responded to the firing of Mike D’Antoni by winning five in a row.

General manager Neil Olshey did not return a phone call Thursday night.

"We’re still behind him," Griffin said. "You look around the locker room and this team is close. Through the past however many games, it might not look like it, but we’re still close. We just hit a rough patch. It’s like we’re scrambling to breathe."

Said Kenyon Martin: "Whoever said it, if it is true, it didn’t come from me and I don’t know who did. But it ain’t always the coach. We’ve got to police ourselves. It can’t always come from the coach. It can’t always come from management. Sometimes it’s got to come from us."

It may have to come without Williams, the scoring guard off the bench. X-rays were negative on his toe, but he left the arena in a walking boot and will undergo an MRI exam on Friday in Los Angeles. Griffin was fortunate not to be leaving in a similar state after the Hornets’ Jason Smith threw a shoulder into him as he drove to the basket midway through the fourth quarter. Smith was ejected for the flagrant foul.

As Smith exited the court, he waved his hands, exhorting the crowd to cheer. A fan near the Clippers bench suggested there was a bounty on Griffin.

"That’s how we play in New Orleans," he said.

Though Paul, Foye and Jordan all rushed to Griffin’s aid and confront Smith, Griffin missed both free throws and the incident did not seem to inspire the Clippers.

These days, little does.