Blake Griffin hedged on the screen and crouched, Kevin Durant swinging into focus. Durant recognized what most would have considered a mismatch, and tried to take Blake Griffin right to the rim. Only Blake quickly moved his feet, the ball poked between Kevin Durant’s legs and Blake threw the pass down to a bolting Jamario Moon for the quick jam. Blake also drew three charges (2 on Ibaka, 1 on Maynor) and stole another in the back court from Daequan Cook. Which begs the question, how good can Blake be on defense?
Blake’s early reputation would tell you that’s a fluke, right? Well, it wasn’t. He has quietly been improving his defense in the last few. Like the last game against Toronto (the other Clipper comeback), Blake hedged hard on screens, even picking off one Jose Calderon pass down in the waning moments and nearly grabbing another. It’s been such an improvement that for the Thunder game, Vinny even planned for Blake to cover Durant for certain stretches. “Blake will get his chance,” Vinny said in the pre-game presser. Before, Vinny tried to explain why Blake hadn’t come into his own defensively already. “You look at Blake in high school, college and now this first year in the league and he’s always had to handle the weight of the offensive end a lot just because of his ability and his athletic ability to score the ball.”
And score the ball he has. Blake’s first points were on a Randy Foye alley-oop and by his fifteenth game he already had 44 point game on 14 for 24 shooting, with 15 rebounds and some of the best dunks in recent NBA memory. The highlights showed his dunking as well as his dribbling and passing. Clearly, Blake was something special to behold. But his defense lacked plenty. Even in the Knicks game he gave up 39 points to Amar’e Stoudemire. Not that Amar’e doesn’t go off occassionally, but there was a lackadaisical nature to his defense. He frequently found himself out of position or outhustled back on defense, and rarely challenged shots, which Blake recognizes.
“A lot of it from college on is trying to stay out of foul trouble. It’s something that I kind of have to get out of a little bit. But at the same time you have to pick and choose your spots, I’m not going to be able to block everything,” Blake said.
“The main thing separating Blake Griffin from being a better-than-serviceable defender at the NBA level is a plan. While we talk a lot about players needing a plan on the offensive side, the same thing goes for the other end of the court. In Blake’s case, all too often he allows his offensive player to dictate spaces on the court, relying on his athleticism and back-end hustle to eventually make a play. Because the physical tools are present, there is a lot of upside for Griffin on D,” Macri said, then qualifying his point on hustle. “His mentality to dominate the painted area on the offensive end has to carry-over onto the defensive side. He seems to play defense because he has to, not because he has any desire.”
Blake’s intensity, however, rarely comes into question at least on offense and Vinny elaborates on what else Blake, as a big man, needs to learn. “The fundamentals of [defense], the angles, rotations, calls. You know Blake has the ability to switch a lot of things because he can guard more than one position. But calls and coverages off the big is a big thing because the guards are up on the ball but the bigs can see the whole floor, so they can see the action developing. Communication is vital.”
A defensive anchor like Vinny describes reads the opposing teams offense, becoming the eyes and the brain of the defense. But that rarely comes early for a young player. “Just getting down and understanding. The more I play and the more experience I have, the more comfortable you feel out there. So for me, just getting the experience and putting out a lot of effort. Something that I just have to work on,” Blake said. “And a lot of it is not like the stuff where you can go in the gym and work on it over and over. There’s a lot of film-watching, a lot of understanding, a lot of seeing things happen, especially on rotations.”
Blake makes his comparison to another rookie that struggled with defense when he first entered the league who has since become one of the best defenders in the game. “You see a guy like LeBron who can guard like, I don’t know, probably four positions. That’s the type of defender that I want to be. Not just guarding threes and fours but guarding twos, threes, fours and fives. You know, switching off on a one, and being able to prevent the roll. You need your teammates to be able to rely on you.”
But is LeBron really the type of player that Blake should focus on? No question, LeBron can completely alter a game defensively, but despite his size, he plays much more on the wing. Maybe a player like Kenyon Martin would be more appropriate?
“I like Kenyon, though I’m not sure Griffin needs to be quite as aggressive to be effective,” Macri said. “But you know the guy I’d like to have him watch, even if it isn’t his position? Noah. I think they both play with a lot of energy on the boards, so there is an already-present connection there. But beyond that, Griffin has been known as a lunchpail grinder for a while, but he doesn’t play with the same kind of zest every play. Noah is constantly competing, and even when he doesn’t make the smart play, he doesn’t fail to get after it a little.”
Any team would love to have their own player go after it on defense like Noah, but even Blake acknowledges that blocked shots might not be something that ever becomes a mainstay, not because he can’t do it, but blocking shots might not be his role. “You know, we got a guy by the name of DeAndre Jordan who’s one of the best [at blocking shots]. It’s just one of those things where I have to find my identity as a defensive player on my team.”
So Macri, Vinny Del Negro and Blake have their goals boiled down to three things, which would combine perfectly to create Blake’s defensive identity: Increased intensity on defense, being the defensive quarterback and defensive versatility. From that perspective, the best candidate to model Blake’s defense would be Kevin Garnett.
Garnett used to hound players of all positions with his length and athleticism. And no one would ever dream about questioning Garnett’s intensity unless they meant that he was too intense. Even now, he lashes out at least once a month, and while he doesn’t have the same legs he once had that allowed him to guard everyone, he is still the vocal leader and anchor of one of the NBA’s elite defenses. Could Blake do the same?
Few would question Blake’s athleticism, he might be even more gifted than Garnett, if only due to his slight advantage (already) due to his strength, although he is shorter (Blake is listed at 6’10” and KG is listed at 6’11”, but the real difference might be slightly greater). His natural skills give him the ability to defend just about any player on the floor. But Blake also has the mind, the drive and the court awareness. He averages almost four assists per game, which speaks to his ability to recognize spatial patterns on the floor, but to watch him is even more impressive.
He usually surveys from his favorite spot, the high post, and either attacks or finds the open man on the wing. Despite his high turnover, rarely are they the result of a bad pass, rather they are usually from his inherent aggressive nature to take everything hard into the paint, he gets the ball stripped, or can dribble it off his or another players’ leg. But when he’s passing, he’s probably the best on the Clippers.
And any of his violent dunks or glares at opposing players informs that he’s brimming with intensity. Even if he hasn’t transferred it over full time to defense.
“The core of our players are going to have to improve defensively,” Vinny said, broadening the topic. “It’s started at times for Blake, but we’re going to need more consistency.” It brings back the point that Blake’s defensive evolution has a long ways to go. He may never get to Garnett’s level of defense, but if Blake even comes close to that level of dedication and efficacy, he’ll likely be an MVP. Even Vinny, especially Vinny, gets pumped by the thought. “The exciting part is that I know that there is more there and I know that we can tap into that and make sure that we continually develop.”
At this point, what defense will come down to is how much Blake wants it and he’ll tell you just how much.
“I want to be one of the best defenders.”