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LOS ANGELES — Blake Griffin’s long-anticipated return to the court, as choppy and fourth gear as it might have been, represented one major change. The Clippers, stuck in limbo and stuck grappling with internal questions since their All-Star forward went down on Christmas, can now redirect their gaze outward with an eye toward a firm date: the start of the playoffs.
The Clippers beat the Wizards 114–109 on Sunday at the Staples Center, a victory that clinched home-court advantage for Doc Rivers and company. Griffin, sidelined for 45 games due to a quad injury, a broken hand and then a suspension related to the hand, posted six points, five rebounds and four assists while tallying a game-high +22 in 25 minutes.
Griffin’s afternoon included plenty of familiar interchanges, a few explosive flashes, and multiple frustrating fumbles. His first points came on—what else?—a lob dunk from Chris Paul, and he generally looked back at ease manning the perimeter in L.A.’s half-court offense, setting screens and beating the defense with his passes. He appeared disappointed in his shooting stroke—he finished 2-of-7 and didn’t hit from outside six feet—and lost his handle at least twice early.
“My rhythm was pretty bad, my conditioning was a little bit better than I thought it was going to be, but not great by any means,” Griffin said. “I’m just happy to be out on the court with my guys. … It’s like riding a bike, except a little rusty.”
What's important is Griffin didn’t play in timid fashion. He went to a quick, hard spin move without trepidation, he pushed the ball up the court himself multiple times, he contested shots in the air and he dove to the hardwood for a loose ball. He didn’t waste any time delivering or receiving contact, either: Griffin knocked Bradley Beal to the court with a playoff foul, only to take a strong shot from Markieff Morris later in the game.
Griffin looked lighter on his feet, speedier in the open court and more ferocious off the ground. His presence commanded attention from the Wizards, who hard-doubled him regularly and shadowed him carefully as he trailed on the break. On one three-on-two play in transition, Paul saw Griffin covered so tightly that he bypassed a contested attempt in the paint and instead found J.J. Redick wide open for a corner three. On another possession, Griffin quickly read a mismatch and threaded a nice entry pass to Cole Aldrich, forcing Washington to foul the big-bodied center.
And, as has been the case for three seasons now, Redick delighted in orbiting around Griffin on the perimeter, taking dribble hand-offs and using screens by Griffin to shake his defender for clean looks, while Paul and Griffin got reacquainted in their trust high screen-and-rolls. In short, the Clippers looked like the Clippers again, even if Griffin didn’t quite look like himself at full strength.
“With Blake, there’s endless possibilities,” Paul said. “Him and J.J. have a little game that they play together. [DeAndre Jordan] and Blake are usually on the ball screens. It’s good to see them on some of that action. Me looking for him on the short roll. It’s a lot of stuff we haven’t done in a while.”
The plan over the next two weeks is to manage Griffin’s reintegration from a minutes standpoint, as he continues to feel pain near his knee due to a quadriceps tear that never fully healed. During his postgame interview, Griffin said his leg was pain-free, but added that “the key is [how I feel] tomorrow and the next few days.” Rivers plans to keep Griffin’s minutes to around 25 in the immediate future and hold him out on back-to-backs.
This approach comes with some consequences. Griffin needs to make progress on his conditioning, the fluidity of his shot and his comfort as a center in small ball lineups. But the Clippers’ primary goal of having their full rotation available for the postseason clearly takes precedence.
“I don’t think they’re going to delay the playoffs for us,” Rivers said. “We’ll be ready. We’re going to be the best we can be. I think our guys understand the urgency. They understand we may need to watch more film and do more work to get there. But we’ll get there.”
An unexpected thing happened during Griffin’s absence: The Clippers held their positioning while the Grizzlies, their expected opponent in a No. 4 vs. No. 5 first-round series, have slipped considerably due to a long list of injuries. Indeed, L.A. went 30–15 without Griffin, despite a rough stretch of high-profile, double-digit losses in March, while Memphis has cratered, going 2–10 over its last 12 games without Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Meanwhile, the Blazers had won six of their previous eight games entering Sunday, putting them on course to pass the Grizzlies and gain the No. 5 seed before season’s end. For months, and as recently as a week or 10 days ago, a third round between the Clippers and the Grizzlies, who faced off in the 2012 and 2013 playoffs, seemed inevitable. Now, not so much.
From L.A.’s perspective, this probably qualifies as bad news, although it’s not quite a disaster. The Grizzlies are a physical, experienced team, but they’re also limping to the point of near death. Since the All-Star break, Portland has easily outperformed Memphis in record, point differential, offensive rating and defensive rating.
Post All-Star Break
Clippers: 13–10 | +3.6 Point Diff. | 107.5 Off. Rating | 102.7 Def. Rating
Blazers: 14–9 | +1.9 Point Diff. | 108.9 Off. Rating | 107 Def. Rating
Grizzlies: 10–14 | -3.9 Point Diff. | 104 Off. Rating | 109.2 Def. Rating
In fact, things are so bad for the Grizzlies that their point differential after the All-Star break ranks 25th and last among projected playoff teams. What is a better opponent for Griffin to “get right” against than these guys? A series against Memphis might even take on the look and feel of a soft (re)launch for L.A.’s All-Star forward.
Instead, the Clippers may need to contend with the Blazers, a team they beat 3–1 in the season series. The Clippers hold multiple key advantages: they have more playoff experience, their core pieces have played together for years, all three of their stars (Paul, Griffin and Jordan) should be expected to win their matchups and the Blazers are shaky defensively and haven’t fared very well on the road this season.
Portland, though, would possess a major edge in the pressure department. The Blazers are among the league’s biggest overachievers, boasting a bare-bones salary cap and a young roster full of up-and-comers looking to begin their postseason track records. A first-round exit for the Blazers, who are playing with house money, would be a quickly forgotten footnote.
The exact opposite is true for the Clippers, who are coming off a monumental collapse in the second round last year while also facing questions about whether or not to break up their core trio this summer in hopes of catching up to the Warriors. A first-round exit for the Clippers would be calamitous.
While it’s tempting and natural to explain the significance of Griffin’s return by looking ahead to a likely second-round showdown with Golden State, he will loom very large against Portland too. Recently, the Blazers have settled on a small starting lineup that features guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, two combo forwards in Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, and center Mason Plumlee. That group has fared exceptionally well in limited minutes, posting a +20 net rating in 204 minutes entering Sunday’s action.
When healthy, Griffin represents a nightmare matchup for that group. His size, strength and foul-drawing abilities would present problems for Portland’s forwards. His mobility would allow him to handle his defensive responsibilities against the spread look while also hitting the glass. His ball-handling skills and willingness to push tempo would place undue stress on Portland’s defense. His screen-setting should force numerous, favorable switches given the lack of size and physicality in the Blazers’ backcourt. If Portland can’t play its best group big minutes against L.A., it’s going to have a hard time pulling out the series. Griffin has the potential to bust that lineup.
This discussion, and others like it, might be the best part of Griffin’s return. After months of waiting, worrying and hand-wringing over Griffin’s punch, L.A. finally looks ready to get back to basketball. Not a moment too soon.