Clippers pinning title hopes on evolving Blake Griffin
LOS ANGELES -- They all bet something on Blake Griffin. Chris Paul wagered the rest of his prime. Doc Rivers gambled the goodwill he earned in Boston. Danny Granger risked a title shot, Glen Davis ventured some minutes and J.J. Redick put up a little cash. Stakes varied, but terms did not. Everybody who signed new contracts with the Clippers banked on Griffin's becoming a top-five player. If he did, they'd be compensated richly. If he didn't, they'd lose their shirts to the Grizzlies again.
Pinning playoff hopes entirely on Griffin sounds simplistic, but the Clippers knew what they'd get from Paul and Rivers, plus their half-a-dozen veteran snipers. DeAndre Jordan was a wild card, but he's a 6-foot-11 jumping bean, and there was little doubt Rivers would prod him to protect the rim. For the Clips to crack the tough upper crust of the Western Conference, they needed Griffin to make another Kia-sized leap, from Paul's sidekick to his co-star.
The odds were stacked in their favor -- Griffin was only 24, supernaturally gifted and equally dedicated -- but there are no guarantees in player development. For a physical marvel like Griffin, the difference between All-Star and mega-star is as slim as a few more made free throws a game plus a couple of mid-range jumpers, thereby drawing defenders away from the basket. "Then he puts the ball down one time," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said, "and he's by you for a dunk."
On Monday, one night after Griffin celebrated his 25th birthday, he had his 27th straight game of 20 points or more. The surge dates to mid-January, when Paul was rehabbing his separated shoulder, and Griffin appeared emboldened by the floor general's absence. Savoring his newfound freedom, Griffin became the Clippers' primary playmaker, even pushing the ball down the court, then posting up and finally unleashing the mid-range jumper that used to be his bugaboo. He scored 43 against Miami, 36 against Denver, 36 against Toronto. Then Paul returned, but Griffin's confidence remained, and he hung another 36 on Portland and 35 on San Antonio.
"I've always known he was a freak of nature, but what I didn't know is his skill level," Granger said. "The way he shoots the ball, the way he passes, he's a very unique player with the package of skills he has. Not many power forwards can make moves going to the basket. He may be the only one."
The Clippers won 17 games in a row last season, so they are quick to discount their recent roll, which ended at 11 on Monday. But last year's streak ended in December and this one in March. "Now, it's the right time," Paul said. He missed more than a month because of the shoulder and the Clippers are still essentially playing without a shooting guard. Redick has a bulging disk in his back and Jamal Crawford a strained left calf. But the Clippers "keep the train moving," as their mantra reminds, because Griffin chugs on. Despite his heedless style, he has missed only two games since he broke his left kneecap as a rookie.
That summer he spent rehabbing. The summer after his second year was the lockout. The summer after his third year he tore the meniscus in his left knee while practicing with the U.S. national team. This past summer represented his first full offseason, and he sidled up to shooting coach Bob Thate, famous for reconstructing Jason Kidd's jumper in Dallas.
"It's a lot more mental than I used to think it was," Griffin said. "Really locking in every single shot and really focusing in on things he wants me to focus on. Even now when I come out to shoot pre-game, he's on me every single time I pick up the ball. I constantly hear him in my ear."
Clippers officials tell stories about seeing Griffin, the morning after long road trips, hoisting jumpers alone even though the team has the day off. He is shooting 39.6 percent from 10-16 feet this season, according to basketball-reference.com, up from 35.6. He is at 70.5 percent from the free-throw line, the ultimate mid-range, up from 66.0. But Griffin's improvement is often overstated. His growth has been gradual ever since he hurdled that sedan. Two years ago, Griffin shot only 25 percent from 10-16 feet and 52.1 from the line. All the huzzahs he's receiving now could have been dished out last season, but coach Vinny Del Negro limited his minutes, in hopes of keeping him healthy for the playoffs. Of course, the opposite occurred and Griffin rolled his ankle in the first round.
Rivers has given Griffin more minutes, yielding more points, and encouraged him to face up rather than back down. By facing the basket, Griffin can deploy his speed, as well as his burgeoning jumper. When he catches the ball just off the elbow, he immediately looks for his shot, and if a defender closes he drives. He is content drawing fouls because they no longer prompt so many fruitless trips to the stripe. The Clippers, as a result of Griffin's versatility, tout the league's most prolific offense. He is the rare big man -- LeBron James being another -- who can run the fast break as easily as he can shred a double team in the post.
"The MVP is a two-man race," Griffin said, but after James and Kevin Durant comes an intriguing battle for bronze. Where Paul George once held inside position, Griffin is now jostling with the likes of James Harden, Joakim Noah and Kevin Love. He is top five, for sure. But he will be measured, like most oversized headliners, when he's colliding with Tim Duncan and Serge Ibaka in two months.
The most remarkable part of the Clippers' 11-game dash was that they jumped just one spot in the hypercompetitive West standings. To reach their first Finals, the Clips will have to capsize Oklahoma City or San Antonio, and probably both. They do not have as much experience, and even with Granger and Davis fortifying the bench, they don't have as much depth.
But they have Paul and Griffin -- or Griffin and Paul -- finally in no particular order.