LOS ANGELES -- Blake Griffin's curious answer said plenty about his defensive mindset, if only because the question -- "So how do you see the second season so far?" -- was so generic and non-threatening.
It was a harmless opener to a recent chat with the Clippers' power forward, a chance to check in on the status of his hoops evolution. Still, with flattering evidence of Griffin's game in his favor and all signs pointing to continued elevation in his high-flying career, it was evident that the reigning Rookie of the Year is assuming the worst when it comes to his critics.
"From the outside looking in, a spectator -- or somebody who doesn't come to the games or doesn't really watch them -- might think that I'd be down on this year, but I'm not at all," he said. "Our team, from last year to this year, is so much different. Obviously by our record, we've won [36 games now], and we won 32 in an 82-game season last year, so I've found out that it's easier to score and it's easier to do that stuff on a team that's not as good and when you're not playing in games like these.
"Last year, a lot of games were out of hand and it's different. As far as being efficient, as far as the number of shots taken, and having the ball in my hands, it's all changed. So I don't look at this year and say, 'Man, I haven't done this or haven't done that.' I'll let other people do all that."
No one was accusing him of poor play, but he kept going nonetheless.
"I hear it," he continued. "My friends, they know I like articles and stuff like that for motivation for myself. So I might see every single one that comes out. For me, it's motivation."
In case it wasn't clear, in other words, Griffin isn't feeling like the golden boy these days.
When Griffin discusses Year No. 2 and how it differs from his sensational rookie season, he feels the need to state the obvious: He's thrilled with the Clippers' new-look roster and wants to win, which would seem to mean he's happier now than he was then -- even if it doesn't always appear that way.
Losses aside (50 last season), Griffin's first season was a love fest that anyone with a pulse and a healthy ego would have enjoyed. He was deemed the savior of a woeful franchise and newest darling of the NBA, earning a nightly spot on
But the Clippers know what's at stake this time around, how crucial it is that they make a strong statement in the playoffs and set the tone for a 2012-13 campaign that will determine whether Chris Paul -- who is under contract only through next season -- stays and where the franchises goes. All it takes to get a sense of the new landscape is a peek at the Hotel Figueroa near Staples Center, where Paul's towering image is front and center, while Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are at his sides.
"It's a different climate, clearly," said Clippers assistant coach Marc Iavaroni, a former Grizzlies head coach who works with Griffin more than anyone. "The first year is always magical. It was magical for me and I wasn't a phenom.
"But now, suddenly, he's under more scrutiny, higher expectations. He's got a new cast. The next thing for him is to say, 'All right, I want to be productive -- i.e., numbers -- but I've also got to help us win more. So where do I put the bar, where does [coach] Vinny [Del Negro] put the bar, where does Chris put the bar? And the bar has been elevated. It's not just a matter of making the playoffs. It's a question of having momentum going in, and keep searching, keep trying to get home court. I think Blake understands that."
Never mind that the Clippers made the playoffs only four times in the previous 29 years under owner Donald Sterling, with no team finishing higher than sixth in the Western Conference. Or that Griffin is on pace to become just the 16th player in league history to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in his first two seasons and is one of only three players doing it this season (with Orlando's Dwight Howard and Minnesota's Kevin Love). No time for back-patting or celebrating now, especially with all the work Griffin has to do on his game.
"It's not jarring," Griffin said when asked about his second season. "You really just have to get used to it, to adjust to everybody's games because the level of talent, the level of play on the court, is so much different this year than last year. ... It just takes time to adjust."
Of all the changes the Clippers want Griffin to make to his game, defense has become the top priority. He's no longer being asked to preserve his fouls as a way to stay in the game like he was at Oklahoma and during his rookie season, but rather to defend aggressively and intelligently while improving his positioning and awareness. It's a must if the Clippers, who rank 17th in points allowed per possession and 13th in opponents' field-goal percentage, are going to do any damage in the playoffs.
"I think he gets caught up in trying to block shots and being physical," a scout said of Griffin. "The guy moves his feet so well, and sometimes being long is all you need to do. He just relies so much on his athletic ability, and going forward, he has to figure out the rest of the game. Slow it down a little bit, understand the fundamentals. It's a process that takes a little maturing for him.
"He has that ability. Most great offensive players are guys who don't put as much effort in defensively, especially early in their careers. So I think he'll get to that point [of getting better]."
Improving Griffin's post game is a priority as well, but the condensed season has left little time to add to his repertoire. He works mainly with Iavaroni and player development coach Dave Severns, but the Clippers are wary of overdoing it.
"We have a foundation of offseason work to draw upon," Iavaroni said. "We can tweak a few moves, and I can show him a couple of things that are really fun to expose him to ... but if you toss it on top of the schedule and the demands, doing too many things is counterproductive.
"It's a balance of video, a little bit at shootaround, a little bit before a game -- but not too much. Games are routine, about feeling good about what you have, not 'Hey, let me show you what you don't have.' "
Still, the scout said Griffin's moves down low have improved already.
"It was all dunks and overpowering people before, and now he's gotten to the point where he can use a jump hook and he has better footwork in the post," he said. "It's something where I think this summer -- if he's not on the Olympic team [
Griffin has a long way to go to resemble "The Dream," but he has become more effective on the offensive end. His shooting has improved from 50.6 percent last season to 54.3 percent this season, with a slight uptick from mid-range (34 percent to 36 percent) and in the paint outside the restricted area (36 percent to 38 percent), according to NBA.com. If and when he becomes consistent with his outside jumper, his already-scary offensive attack could be even more dangerous.
"When he's knocking down that jumper ... he's unguardable," Paul said.
The greatest cause for concern, it would seem, is the drastic decline in Griffin's free-throw accuracy (from 64.2 percent last season to 52.4 percent this season). It's poorly timed considering the way in which teams are now defending him, becoming even more physical in an attempt to make him this generation's version of Shaquille O'Neal with the Hack-a-Shaq approach.
But Clippers general manager Neil Olshey isn't panicking yet, instead looking to Hall of Famer Karl Malone, who shot a combined 54.8 percent from the line in his first two seasons before finishing his career with a 74.2-percent mark.
There's no easy solution to that, though, and Griffin has learned the hard way that his failures can't be fixed simply by putting in more hours on the floor or in the weight room. It's the downside of his driven personality, and the trait that helped him get here is now running the risk of holding him back.
"What's gotten Blake this far is that perfectionism," Iavaroni said. "And now, to get to the next level, he's got to learn -- like all maturing performers -- that it's not all, 'Drive, drive, drive, through the wall, through the wall, through the wall.'
"'There are times when [he should say] 'I need to take less of this so that I have more energy for that' -- whether it's weight lifting, shooting jumpers. It's quality over quantity, in a nutshell.'"
The push for perfection affects Griffin during games, too.
"Blake holds himself to such a high standards that there are times when it's counterproductive because he tries so hard," Iavaroni said. "He's so committed to being as perfect as he can be that he doesn't leave room for error. To know that it's OK to miss a jump shot, that it's OK to miss a free throw, that it happens to everybody. But if you let it affect the next play, then it's an issue. He's done a much better job of shaking fouls off, shaking free throws off, things like that."
Progress, not perfection, is the shared goal. And while Griffin's coaches and teammates enjoy his nightly dunking exhibitions as much as anyone, it's the less-glamorous parts of his game that they're obsessed with now.
"As we get better, it'll be more about our transition defense -- how many stops we get in a row, or how we're rebounding -- than it will be about the spectacular plays and all of that," Del Negro said. "Although those are great and we want to use those to our advantage, we also want to make the right basketball play.
"I think Blake is learning those things. Things can turn quickly in games, and it's about mismatches and recognizing them, about teams making runs at you and how you respond to them. He's learning all those things, but Blake's a worker. You can see improvement in his game already, and I think that will just continue."
Thunder center Kendrick Perkins, of all people, has noticed Griffin's growth.
"It's just his second year but I do see him getting better," said Perkins, the victim of one of Griffin's
"If you watch his pick-and-roll defense, I see him making an effort to help where last year I didn't see that. I see him getting better."
If there's one area where the Clippers are counting on Griffin to grow more than anywhere else, it's his ability to be a potent pairing with Paul. The vision must be realized if this is to be a long-term relationship, though there's clearly work to be done.
As wondrous as the idea of a Paul-Griffin one-two punch was when the deal with New Orleans went down on Dec. 15, it was never as simple as it seemed. The younger Griffin -- though worthy of Jordan's "Lob City" moniker -- was hardly the versatile, veteran big man with whom Paul was used to playing (see David West and Tyson Chandler). Their styles don't always mesh either, as Paul often spends his time probing the defense while Griffin wishes he would simply send it his way in the post.
"With Chris and Blake, the timing is what they've got to get," Olshey said. "Not having practice has affected it. Chris came from David West, who was more of a pick-and-pop kind of guy.
"They're still learning each other. Chris is trying to learn where Blake likes the ball. Blake is trying to learn when to dive, when to pop, what Chris needs from him. It's definitely a work in progress, and I think that the more they're together, the more they know where each other's sweet spots are coming from. But it's going to be a monster [combination] at some point."
It can't come quickly enough for the impatient Paul, though.
"He's growing like everybody else and seeing what it's like to play for a contender," Paul said of Griffin. "It's a different game, but he's getting it."
Paul -- who has fallen in the first round of the playoffs twice (2009 and 2011) and reached the second round once (2008) -- is widely considered one of the most intense and intelligent players in the league. He's as demanding as they come with his teammates, and likely even more so when the stakes are so high. And Paul has occasionally put his coaching hat on with his young teammate.
"We got on the court together in San Antonio [on March 9], and I tried to talk to him about footwork," Paul said. "That's the thing that can separate you from a lot of players. The other thing is bringing it on both ends. That's the way you really become a competitor, when you get mad that people score on you.
"He's working on it. This is a tough season, and we don't get much practice time. But I'm glad that he's on my team, I'll tell you that much."
The lessons, Griffin said, are something he welcomes.
"[Paul] is a very cerebral player, and he knows the game really well," Griffin said. "I'm kind of learning the game through his eyes and kind of seeing how he reacts and how he navigates through things. It's been important for me. We've been more and more on the same page.
"At first, when a player comes in, it's hard to click right away. But now, he'll tell me whatever he's thinking. We have that kind of relationship where you don't have to hold back this or hold back that. For us, it's about getting better, and the only way we're going to do that is if we're open and honest with each other. That's how it's been, and that's how it needs to be."
As Griffin and Paul continue to find their way as a combo, Iavaroni said the teaching moments will be key.
"We need to do more of that," Iavaroni said of Paul's session with Griffin in San Antonio. "That's where Chris really understands that the more he does that, the more people feel like his leadership is totally spiritual.
"It's technical in the vehicle of it, but the spiritual side of that is where he really gets a lot of mileage because these guys listen to him."
As Olshey sees it, Griffin has what it takes to be a future Hall of Famer. The playoffs will be a major test for the 23-year-old, and he could have a chance to add to his résumé this summer if he's selected to compete for Team USA in the London Olympics.
As for the numbers, the reality is that they do matter. Griffin's production over two seasons is on par with the likes of Tim Duncan and Olajuwon, and the fact that the Clippers are winning with him -- even with the added internal pressure that comes with it -- means his reputation is better for it.
Despite the pressure of this unique season, the love affair with Griffin remains after all.
"He can be one of the greats, and I think he will," Olshey said, "because most of the things that derail guys who have that God-given ability but don't fulfill their potential don't relate to him.
"You've got a guy who is probably one of the top 20 players in the league already, and he's still evolving. His work ethic is unparalleled. There's just so much more to his game."