LOS ANGELES -- The lob from Eric Bledsoe was a little off, drifting toward the side of the backboard. For most players, the next move would break down into three parts: Catch. Control. Finish.
Blake Griffin did it all in a single, Matrix-like motion.
The Clippers' forward elevated, reached back for the fading ball and slammed it through the rim, pushing his team's first quarter lead over San Antonio to five Wednesday and whipping the Staples Center crowd into a frenzy.
Indeed, there is athletic and there is Blake Griffin. The explosiveness of the 6-foot-10 rookie can be documented -- he has a 37-inch vertical -- but can't truly be measured, not when Griffin blends it with superior power and head-turning quickness. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro recalls Dominique Wilkins when talking about Griffin. Teammate Ryan Gomes says Griffin powers to the rim like a pre-knee-surgery Amar'e Stoudemire.
"I look at him like a gladiator," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's stronger than everybody he plays against and he's more powerful and he's quicker. Most of the time, he's more determined on top of it. He's one tough cat."
Yes, the Blake Griffin Era is in full swing in Southern California. Though the Clippers have battled injuries and inconsistency -- they improved to 4-15 with Wednesday's 90-85 victory against the Spurs -- Griffin has been spectacular. He leads all rookies in scoring (20.7 points) and rebounding (11.6) and already owns a 40-point game. Against San Antonio, Griffin effortlessly racked up 31 points and 13 boards -- it was his sixth straight game with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds -- to help hand the Spurs their first road loss of the season and give L.A. its first win over San Antonio in 18 tries, dating back to 2006.
Power is Griffin's game right now. He leads the NBA in dunks and scores the bulk of his points off pick-and-rolls and rim assaults in which he uses his strength and leaping ability to force in shots. He's fearless, too. Three times against San Antonio, Griffin hit the floor after a hard drive. Each time he popped right back up. The knee injury that cost him the entire 2009-10 season? Griffin says he doesn't even think about it.
"At times, he can do things that are very easy for him that very few players can do," Del Negro said. "As long as he keeps the same mentality and same direction as far as his work ethic, he will be fine."
That's the other thing about Griffin: He does work. A lot. After most practices, Griffin stays on the floor to work on a post moves with DeAndre Jordan and Chris Kaman. He doesn't have a go-to move yet, though Gomes says it could be the turnaround fadeaway. Del Negro believes Griffin could eventually play like Tim Duncan, where he faces up and can choose from multiple options. Griffin likes the pick-and-pop, a play he says he works on "nonstop" in practice.
He doesn't mind stealing moves, either. A self-described film junkie, Griffin studies tapes of opposing big men and tries to add their moves to his repertoire. Recently, Griffin has focused on Stoudemire, specifically when the Knicks' power forward catches at the elbow, takes two dribbles toward the rim and elevates over the defenders.
"If I can make it work for me," Griffin said, "I'm going to add it to the arsenal."
For now, the Clippers are satisfied with Griffin's progress. They don't want to rush him or pile on pressure to carry the team before he is ready. But they know what he brings.
"Right now, he is a great athlete playing basketball," Del Negro said. "Our job is to make him a basketball player who is athletic. You don't want to give him too much. You want to let him play and enjoy himself and learn on the fly a little bit. But he wants to get better, and he will. He's too good of a kid and too smart of a player not to go in that direction."