Two months ago, when the Clippers met the Indiana Pacers, their season was careening toward disaster. After getting blown out by 27 points in Indianapolis to begin the season 1-12, when even Blake Griffin looked lethargic and scored a quiet 12 points, there was a growing fear that the malaise which hung over the Clippers franchise would eventually sap the enthusiasm of their young nucleus before they have a chance to bloom. Even Eric Gordon, the one constant Clippers bright spot in the young season, had one of his worst games of the year, making only 5 out of 17 shots for 19 points.
After the game, an angry Blake Griffin said that things had to change. Many players in Clippers history have made that proclamation before, both in hubris and in despair. But very few have been able to back up their words with action. In the following game against the Knicks, Blake came out and backed up his words with an exclamation point. In a game that the Clippers would eventually lose, Blake broke the Clippers’ rookie scoring record with 44 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, and dished out 7 assists. The numbers were impressive enough, but it was his exuberance display of power and speed that was breathtaking.
Blake’s breakthrough performance in that Knicks game would be a turning point for the Clippers franchise, even as it heralded his arrival as the league’s next marquee player. Since that Indiana game, Blake has registered a double-double in every contest, and his points, rebounds, and assists have climbed every month to a dizzying level. While Eric Gordon has established himself as the team’s quiet scoring leader and most consistent performer, Blake Griffin has raised his game to a superstar level. And everyone on the team, from his friend DeAndre Jordan on down to the mercurial Baron Davis, has followed his lead. It was as if the mood of the franchise and the locker room suddenly shifted when the players realized that they are playing alongside one of the strongest and quickest players in the league, someone who can impose his will upon the game and demoralize the opposition. Slowly, the team started competing, their collective energy and effort rising to meet the surge of their rookie superstar.
After a horrendous 1-13 start, the Clippers have clawed back toward respectability, winning 9 out of their last 13, and notching memorable wins against the league’s best squads. And so, when the Indiana Pacers met the Clippers again on this Martin Luther King holiday, they are playing a different Clippers team, one that has been riding high, their confidence and joy rising with each unexpected victory.
The Clippers started the game slowly, with Blake ominously picking up an offensive foul 45 seconds into the game. The Pacers jumped out to an early 7-2 lead, the Clippers’ only bucket came when Blake overpowered Tyler Hansbrough in the low block. With the rest of the team struggling, Blake begins to impose his will upon the contest, scoring 10 of the Clippers’ first 12 points. The Pacers were determined not to let Blake get into the paint and they sagged off him, daring him to shoot from the outside. After a frustrating first half against the Lakers on Sunday, Coach Vinny Del Negro told Griffin that, “When you’re open, you shoot the ball. I don’t care if you miss every one; you’ve got to play with confidence. You’ve got to be aggressive. I’m going to throw you the ball every time. You’ve got to make plays.” And today Blake Griffin did pull the trigger on his mid-range jumper, and he nailed almost every single one. It was almost a preview of what his game might become in the not-too-distant future, and if so, then the rest of the league is in deep trouble.
Darren Collison’s speed hurt the Clippers’ early, and the Pacer’s prized off-season acquisition would finish the game with an impressive 30 points and 8 assists. Early in the first quarter Collison, the young UCLA point guard confidently hit a shot over Baron Davis’ outstretched hands. Not to be upstaged by a fellow Bruins alumnus, Baron promptly came down and clanged a three off the rim. It was a rare sighting of the Bad Baron, who otherwise played a controlled game and responded with some big shots down the stretch when the defense forgot about him. In this remarkable period of Clippers resurgence, when DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Ike Digou have all raised their level of play, it is Baron Davis’ willingness to play the stabilizing distributor role to his rising young running mates that has been the most surprising development of all. Though he did not shoot well, Baron managed the Clippers offense efficiently, chipping in 14 points and passing out 12 assists.
After scoring 30 points against the Lakers the day before, the Clippers’ other big gun—Eric Gordon—scored 23 points on 8-15 shooting, going 3-6 at the three point line and collecting 7 dimes. Often obscured by the incandescent performance of Blake Griffin and his highlight reel plays, Gordon has quietly established himself as one of the league’s premier shooting guard, and a legitimate star in his own right. At crucial junctures in the game, when the Clippers were making a run and needed to get over the hump, EJ is no longer hesitant to take the big shot. He gave the Clippers their first lead at 21-20 by stepping into a three pointer. And later in the second quarter, in a seesaw battle when the Pacers answered every Clippers run with surges of their own to establish a 45-35 advantage, the Clippers fought back and Gordon nailed another three pointer to swing the lead back to the Clippers at 47-46. In a game when the opposition consistently leads by a few buckets and a team is constantly clawing their way back, it is the stars that must pull their teammates over the hump before frustration, fatigue, and demoralization can set in. Eric Gordon did that tonight, time and time again. With the third quarter winding down and the Pacers leading 80-79, Eric wound the clock down beautifully, split the double team and charged down the lane for a rim-rattling dunk, giving the Clippers an 81-80 edge heading into the fourth quarter.
The Pacers two big guns tonight of Collison and Granger combined for an impressive 62 points. The Clippers two big guns of Gordon and Griffin combined for an astounding 70 of the team’s 114 points. But as many big shots that Gordon and Baron hit tonight, no one was more dominating than Blake Griffin. Blake broke his own rookie scoring record with 47 points on 19-24 shooting. He had 28 points at half time, while the rest of the team managed only 27 points. As hard as the Pacers tried to keep Blake out of the paint, he was not to be denied. He scored on a variety of post moves and offensive put backs, beating his defender to the hoop with his quickness and overpowering a shot over Hibbert’s or Foster’s attempts to foul him. When the defense sags off Blake to prevent him from driving at all costs, he hit wide-open midrange jumpers to make them pay for their transgressions. “We wanted to keep him from getting to the paint and just make him take tough jumpers. But he was making a lot of jump shots, so it was hard to defend him,” Granger said. Conscious of Blake’s abilities to find open teammates out of the double team, the Pacers were determined to play him one on one in the first half, and it backfired as Blake’s confident grew with each open jumper. Granger said that the Pacers went into the locker room at half time and told each other that they can’t allow Blake to do that again in the second half, “but we just couldn’t stop him.”
The Pacers made their final run in the final minutes of play, shaving the Clippers 10 points lead down to three at 107-104 by doubling Blake and forcing the ball out of his hand. Blake found Randy Foye open for a short corner three but he misfired. The next time down, Blake swung the ball to an open Foye again, who promptly turned the ball over to Collison. Griffin made the right plays both times, but the Clippers came up empty and the Pacers edged closer. With the Clippers badly in need of a hoop, Blake eschewed trying to pass out of the double team that was converging upon him and quickly spun to the bucket for a hook shot to push the Clippers lead back up to 5. It was his 45th point of the game and perhaps another defining moment in his young career. Blake is a fundamentally sound and unselfish player. He trusts his teammates and they, in turn, play with more confidence around him. But at crucial points in the contest, as the clock is winding down and the game is on the line, it must be he or Eric Gordon who takes the defining shots, for it is to them whom their teammates turn, and it is to them who will determine the direction of this franchise. At the crucial juncture, Blake imposed his will on the game today, double team be damned. He would score the last points of the game with a beautiful up-and-under move for his 47th points, the highest total of any player so far in this NBA season.
Pacers coach, Jim O’Brien said that “It’s not a matter of it slipping away, It’s a matter of Griffin’s performance taking it away. It was a spectacular performance by Griffin. We couldn’t guard him. Most of his plays came on pick-and-rolls, so Roy [Hibbert] coming over to guard him was not a good option. Then we had Jeff [Foster], who’s our best defender, rotating to him and we had Danny [Granger] rotating to him. But he was just too much for us to handle.”
Earlier in the year, another NBA stalwart, Jerry Sloan, said that Griffin is one of the few players that he is willing to pay money to see, and that is high compliment because he is notoriously cheap. Sloan also mentioned that Blake’s game reminds him of Larry Bird, a strange comparison as Blake’s inside power game is vastly different from the dead-eye sniping of Larry the Legend. But what Sloan was referring to was Blake’s all around game and his on court intelligence. And in the last month, Blake’s points and assists closely resembles a young Larry Bird, though Griffin’s rebounding number is vastly superior. As we sat there at Staples Center during this mid afternoon game, my friend Kris informed me that her roommate said the TV broadcast showed Bird sitting somewhere behind the Pacers bench. We craned our necks from behind the basket but couldn’t see him from our vantage point. Bird was there to watch his Indiana team play, of course, but I wonder if he was there to also admire the fierce competitiveness of the league’s heralded young star, whose energy and passion for the game burns as brightly as his, and whose remarkable physical gifts may one day elevate him into the pantheon of all time greats.
Since that defining Knicks game, Griffin has been collecting accolades from the league’s elite players. After yesterday’s victory over the Lakers, Kobe said that Blake “punked” them, “He just ran through us. We didn’t put up much of a fight.” For someone as tough and competitive as Kobe, that is as high a compliment as you can get if you’re the opposition. Certain players in the league are capable of efficiently filling up a box score, while others are able to conjure up an occasional highlight reel play to burnish their reputation on Sports Center. Very few athletes are able to dominate their sport in such a consistent and dramatic manner. Blake Griffin has now notched his 27th consecutive double-double, and a new career high of 47 points along with 14 rebounds. That it does not seem a remarkable accomplishment is testimony to his rarefied level of play over the past two months. In the world of sports, we can admire the sustained excellence of a heavyweight boxing champion like Lennox Lewis, who won consistently but who failed to stir our emotions or our collective memory. The violent reign of Mike Tyson was shorter, but in his brief period of ascension, his brutal demolitions of the likes of Trevor Berbick established Iron Mike as a riveting star, whose performance transcended the sport. Blake Griffin’s violent assaults upon the rim is now beginning to capture the imagination of casual fans, but even more impressive than that, he is slowly becoming the player that other NBA players watch. It is a rare thing to behold.