star forward Blake Griffin
is averaging a career-high 24.4 points. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
It is not by accident that so many opposing players have come to tussle with Blake Griffin. He's both a physical player and one teams have apparently marked as easily riled -- prone to the pushing and jawing that can land the Clippers' star forward in foul trouble or worse. Beneath any such ploy is a simple, self-evident truth: As much as Griffin might grapple and agitate, opponents single him out because there are so few other options in dealing with him.
He's an exceptional cover worthy of exceptional treatment. The challenge begins with Griffin's baseline athleticism, quietly enhanced with countless hours of core and lower-body work. Too often his explosion is taken as a point of fact -- a 40-inch vertical as an immutable gift. But this is the same Griffin who, while wearing weights and a resistance belt, scaled sand dunes without shoes as his entry training to the NBA. Every bit of ignition is earned, and every kind of pull and shove emulated. It's for that reason that fouling Griffin is rarely enough. He's a nimble behemoth, so quick on his feet and strong to the hoop that he inspires an abnormal -- and potentially dangerous -- response.
A month ago, Griffin was decked by a shove from Heat center Greg Oden that could very well have ended more disastrously than it did. On Monday, Griffin drew the attention of Suns forward P.J. Tucker, who took a swipe at Griffin after the two got locked up while maneuvering for rebounding position:
No other player is hit and clubbed and suplexed so often in ways utterly without basketball justification, in part because dealing with Griffin on a play-by-play basis is one of the NBA's utmost frustrations.
He dunks. He preens. He baits contact and sneaks in pushes and holds of his own.
And, as is becoming increasingly clear: He can't really be stopped.
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Griffin compelled the Suns to play him more physically after exploding for 22 points on 8-of-9 shooting in the first quarter on Monday. He finished with 37 points (on 14-of-16 shooting) in only 32 minutes -- his career-high 23rd consecutive 20-point game and a raw output that embarrasses the defense beyond the fast-breaking splendor and Mailman-style jam. As his skill set has widened, so too has opponents' desperation. They can't take away his speed or his touch or his leaping ability, but once at a certain boiling point, they can convey their irritation with a body check or forearm shiver at an opportune moment.
In a league loaded with jaw-dropping athletes and sharp defenders, the 24-year-old Griffin renders most of those who line up against him helpless, victim to a combination of skills and attributes that make direct matchups almost impossible. In the past, opponents could give Griffin room when not around the basket, encouraging him to take a lower-percentage jumper and helping counter his quick first step. Phoenix did so in spots on Monday, but Griffin spoiled the strategy by making 8-for-8 from outside the paint. That's an uncharacteristic boon, but overall Griffin is shooting 41 percent from the four mid-range zones (all except the right wing) where he attempts shots regularly -- a respectable mark on par with that of LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love and Marc Gasol.
Blake Griffin is among the NBA leaders in free-throw attempts per game. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
With that improved shooting accuracy, Griffin has zipped shut one of his few remaining offensive limitations. He now has a reliable fallback option when facing up in the post, which, after a few makes, generates more space for the drive. That same skill potentially creates clearer lanes for point guard Chris Paul because Griffin's defender might hesitate before looking to collapse on penetration. Altogether, Griffin has augmented his game in yet another fashion that makes his defender think and work.
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Griffin moves in a way that forces opponents to hustle and home in on his location, only for him to then turn their effort against them. A defender has to keep up with every baseline cut for fear of the dunk that might follow, which can lead to some noticeable overplays. Even the softest roll through the paint prompts opponents to flock to Griffin, opening up opportunities elsewhere. His post-up work is efficient enough to warrant ball denial, but Griffin is so slick in sealing his man and so flexible inside that a quick lob generally yields a deep catch and finish. He's strong enough to bull his way to the hoop and clever enough to react to defensive contact. He can lose an opposing big man with a jab step and attack before the defender has an opportunity to recover. Playing Griffin too closely can lead to an easy shooting foul (as evidenced by his top-five mark in free-throw attempts per game and per minute), and playing him too loosely can open up the jumper, the drive or the well-timed pass. There is no antidote.
All of which makes for a rather exasperating defensive enterprise. Basketball, above all else, is a game of positioning, and it's to Griffin's great benefit that he tends to beat his mark to most any spot on the floor. Still, opponents have to try -- to ward him off the boards, to lean into him defensively, to keep close on his cuts and screens -- even though in doing so they often give Griffin another avenue to advantage. They spend a night working from behind in coverage of a player who is impossibly quick and incredibly strong, all while keeping an eye to Paul, center DeAndre Jordan and a host of shooters on a team that ranks second in offensive efficiency and has won eight games in a row to move into contention for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
The breakdowns are inevitable. What varies, in proportionate agitation and battery, is the response.