LOS ANGELES -- Zach Randolph was the leading per-game scorer in the history of the Los Angeles Clippers when they traded him to Memphis in the summer of 2009. Randolph was averaging 20.9 points, more than Elton Brand or Danny Manning, but the Clippers had just drafted an aerial acrobat from Oklahoma named Blake Griffin and he happened to play the same position. The Clippers billed Griffin as their power forward of the future. They couldn't have Randolph in his way.
While Randolph was reborn in Memphis, Griffin spent his first season rehabilitating from knee surgery, his second season hurdling sedans and 7-footers, and his third season attempting to become more than a trapeze artist. He led the Clippers in scoring and rebounding, started in the All-Star Game, and helped the franchise to its first playoff berth in six years. But a chorus of NBA players made it sound like he only caught Chris Paul's lobs. Griffin brought some of the criticism on himself. He was the first one to blurt "Lob City" the day Paul arrived, strange considering he wanted to emphasize fundamentals more than highlights.
This postseason was to be a proving ground for Griffin, matched up against Randolph, his stylistic opposite. Randolph can't jump over a playbook. He probably hasn't caught a lob in a decade. He is athletically inferior to Griffin, but far ahead in terms of footwork and finesse. Through the first three games of this series, Griffin and Randolph wrestled for position, and in Game 4 a clear leader emerged.
Griffin made his playoff entrance Monday night, charging around Staples Center like a hopped-up kid in a bouncy house, scoring 30 points and contributing at least a half-dozen highlights. He only grabbed five rebounds, but the last one made the difference, a putback in overtime that sprung the Clippers to a 101-97 win and a 3-1 series lead. Griffin fouled out on the next possession, nudging Memphis point guard Mike Conley along the baseline, but Paul finished the Grizzlies with four baskets in OT and chest-bumped Griffin at center court after the last one. The Clipper formula was on full display, Griffin controlling the action, and Paul closing it.
"I have a lot to prove," Griffin said. "My game has a lot of improvement left to be made. This year, especially, I feel like there has really been a drive inside of me that I need to step up and step up in a bigger way and step up on a team that actually wins games. "
Griffin is more effective in transition than in the half court, but the Clippers stationed him in the post and fed him as if he were Dwight Howard. "That's our horse right there," Paul said. "We're going to keep feeding him. He's got 14 guys on the bench yelling, 'Go! Go! Go!'" Passing out of double-teams, Griffin piled up seven assists. He also made 10-of-17 free throws, notable for someone who shot 52 percent from the line this season. Randolph, meanwhile, scored just 12 points and Memphis center Marc Gasol made one field goal.
The Grizzlies adopted a familiar strategy against Griffin, bullying him and hoping he would retaliate with more than his default glare. Late in the first half, Randolph fouled Griffin hard under the basket and bumped him afterward, earning a technical foul. Griffin responded his own way, with a stare-down and a throw-down, one after another. No matter how many teams bait Griffin, he won't brawl. He will only attack the rim.
Griffin dunked on Memphis center Hamed Haddadi while getting hit in the face. He dunked between Haddadi and Dante Cunningham, lowering the ball beneath both of their outstretched arms. He dunked on a lob from Mo Williams, finishing a fast-break that he started. Griffin even did a Pete Rose belly flop across the floor, sliding about 10 feet in pursuit of a loose ball.
As usual, Griffin and the Clippers were accused of flopping and posing. Memphis coach Lionel Hollins singled out Paul during an in-game interview. Hornets point guard Jarrett Jack took to Twitter to gripe about Griffin. The Clippers are making enemies, the surest sign of progress. They are finally a threat. "The sky is the limit," said Paul.
The Clippers hold a comfortable lead but not a decisive edge. They have scored 385 points in this series. Memphis has scored 386. The Grizzlies have lost two games by one point and a third in overtime. "It's for TV," Paul said. "It gets the ratings up. They don't want any blowouts."
In fact, viewers have seen a lot of blowouts in the first round. The Grizzlies and Clippers are the exception, locked in a battle royal, while the aged Spurs get to sit at home and await the survivor. They can enjoy like everybody else.
Game 5 is Wednesday.