Clippers get a chance to coast

LOS ANGELES — The Clippers were having so much fun Wednesday night that maybe coach Vinny Del Negro felt he needed to bring them back to earth.
Their 112-90 start-to-finish beatdown of the Dallas Mavericks was full of highlights — steals, dunks, fastbreak baskets and long-distance shots. Their players on the bench were leaping to their feet with every spectacular play.
But there is always room for improvement. Del Negro offered a laundry list of ways his team could have performed better, from reducing their turnovers (17) to eliminating their uneven play in the third quarter.
He’s not an easy man to please, and perhaps that’s good for the Clippers. Even when they’re playing well, he wants them to believe they can improve.
But here’s the thing: The Clippers have won four games in a row after losing four in a row, and they’re playing with a sustained sense of energy, something that was missing for a time.
“It’s a lot of fun when you’re winning and everybody is playing the right way and getting an opportunity,” Chris Paul said. “We feed off everybody’s energy.”
The Mavericks didn’t have center Dirk Nowitzki, who’s been out the entire season with a bad knee, but the Clippers didn’t have guard Chauncey Billups, who missed his first start in three games because of tendinitis in his left foot.
Even without Billups, the Clippers coasted. They jumped out to a nine-point lead in the first seven minutes and led by as many as 24 points in the fourth quarter. The rout was punctuated in the final minute when Jamal Crawford tossed a short lob pass to 6-foot-1 guard Eric Bledsoe, who slammed in a spectacular reverse dunk.
Game over.
“It’s embarrassing to lose like that, especially at the end of the game,” Mavs forward Shawn Marion said. “They’re playing around, throwing lobs back and forth during the last two, three minutes of the game. That’s embarrassing. You’re not supposed to lose like that.”
Even so, Del Negro insisted it wasn’t perfect. The Clippers had a season-high 18 steals — the most by a Clippers team since Jan. 10, 1997 — but also committed 17 turnovers.
“The issue for us was, we turned it over too much, especially in the second half,” Del Negro said. “We can’t do that. I thought we forced a few shots, didn’t convert on the breaks. We’ve got to clean a lot of things up.”
At least he was pleased with his team’s start. It has been the Clippers’ pattern this season to finish well when they start well. When they don’t, they have difficulty overcoming deficits.
This time, their reserves struggled, giving up some of the lead early in the second period.
“It does no good if the starters get off to a bad start and the bench lifts us up, or we get off to a good start and the bench doesn’t play as well,” Paul said. “There’s no point in having all this depth if we don’t use it the right way.
“A lot of that has to do with me, too. A lot of guys have been telling me I need to be more aggressive, that I’m letting guys off the hook, so I’m going to try and do that from here on out.”
Paul finished with 14 points and 13 assists, and Blake Griffin had 19 points and 13 rebounds, although neither played more than 29 minutes. With a comfortable lead, the bench got significant minutes, scoring 47 points. Lamar Odom, facing his former team, had 11 rebounds.
In the final few minutes, TV cameras caught Mavericks owner Mark Cuban sitting behind his team’s bench, his arms folded and his eyes closed. He had clearly seen enough.
But the Clippers feel they’re just getting started.
“We had a lot of fun tonight,” Bledsoe said. “We didn’t have to worry about a close game.”