Clippers’ Griffin adding so much substance to his ever-growing game

Blake Griffin has become one of the NBA's best players. No, one of its very best players.
Stephen Dunn

You thought you knew Blake Griffin. You thought wrong. We all did.

This is a new kind of Griffin, an extension of what we saw from Blake back in April and May, when he averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game during the postseason. 

Griffin’s playoff majesty wasn’t just about the numbers, though. It was his style. He took over point forward duties — often bringing the ball up the court and almost always initiating the offense — when Chris Paul was off the floor. On a shallow team that had only four rotation players coach Doc Rivers could trust consistently by the end of the Western Conference semis against Houston, what other choice did the Clippers have?

It was a catalyst for Griffin, but it wasn’t the first time. Remember in February and March of 2014, when Paul missed 18 games with a knee injury, and everything was supposed to implode in Los Angeles? The Clippers were supposed to have lost their playmaker, the only guy in the offense who could actually run it. Everything was over … until Griffin proved to be different from what most people thought of him.  

The Clips went 12-6 over that stretch, led by Griffin, who did everything. He took his first major leap into superstardom and eventually finished third in MVP voting because of it. His ubiquitous face now had the game to go with the marketing chops.

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And isn’t it possible the same thing happened in last year’s playoffs? In terms of raw numbers, Griffin couldn’t possibly have seen the same improvement in May that he did in 2014. But in terms of impact?

Smaller scale. Bigger stage. Now, it’s just a different level.

Through six games, the Clippers stand at 4-2, and Griffin is putting up averages of 29.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists. Almost every imaginable stat of his you could check is on pace for or darn near a career-best. But this isn’t just a product of improved skill. That part is obvious, whether you look at his point totals, crazy handles or 54-percent shooting from midrange —

Wait, I’m cutting myself off. Let’s discuss this: 54 percent shooting from midrange.

Griffin’s greatest trouble as a jump shooter ever since he entered the NBA has been the inconsistent timing on his release. All too often, he’ll let go of the ball on the way down instead of at the peak of his jump. Now, he’s fixed that hesitation. He’s releasing from closer to his forehead as opposed to from on top of his head, a major talking point over the years between he and shooting coach Bob Thate. It’s simple, but sometimes the most elegant solutions are. At this point, we’re all just waiting for the threes to start going into the hoop, and it doesn’t even feel like an ambitious anticipation. It’s more like an inevitable one, like a doctor making you sit in those pseudo-padded chairs with too-thin armrests as you wait 35 minutes to see him. 

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The three-week-old GQ that I’m reading is super interesting, but this creepy guy keeps staring at me trying to figure out what I’m here for, so can you just call me in already?

You know the door is going to open eventually. It’s just a matter of time.

It’s not just about the fundamentals, though. And this is what I was getting at before I so rudely interrupted myself to talk about Griffin’s shooting. 

Blake’s self-pace, for lack of a better term, is more controlled than it’s ever been. And that’s changed everything.

The game is clearly coming slower for Griffin now. When he grabs a defensive rebound, he rarely looks to outlet pass these days — especially during the Clippers’ 109-105 loss to Houston on Saturday when Paul didn’t play. Instead, he hustles the ball up the floor himself, usually attempting to use that as an opportunity to back down an uncomfortable defender who had to pick him up in transition or to create a drive-and-dish situation. 

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There used to be so much natural hesitation in Griffin’s game. He saw everything. He made every pass. He always has. But in forming the right decision, he wouldn’t make up his mind as quickly as even he knew he should. But now, it’s all come together. He doesn’t have that split-second period when he catches the ball at 20 feet and thinks, “Wait, do I shoot or swing it or run something for myself?” To go for the inter-sport comparison, he’s Manning-ized his game. It’s instinctive. It’s beautiful.

It’s not just feel, either. Defenses are changing the way they’re guarding Griffin, and he’s already adjusted. Now that he’s so capable — more than capable; shall we say dominant? — from midrange, defenders are starting to get into his face away from the rim. So, he’s started backing down guys from the high post, looking to distribute in the process. During the second half of the Houston game Saturday, the Rockets started sending second defenders at Griffin every time he turned his back to the hoop. At first, he went quiet, but after only a few minutes, he adjusted. He started either taking off immediately upon receiving the ball or finding shooters on the outside. 

That’s the sort of alteration we didn’t always see from Griffin in the past, who had a tendency to get stubborn with his style. And that’s not a knock on the old Blake. Let’s not forget that Griffin’s third-place MVP finish a couple of years ago was more than deserved. But this is a different Griffin, a level — or more — better. And whether it’s Paul or Rivers or Griffin or someone else noticing it, the Clippers are acknowledging that Blake has progressed. 

Paul is taking more of a back seat thus far this season. CP3 averaged 81.6 frontcourt touches per game over the past two seasons, per NBA.com, placing him third in the league over that period. During his five contests this season, he’s taken a steep drop, averaging only 68 per game. 

Griffin probably can’t keep up this statistical pace. It’s been six games. And only half-a-dozen players (Kareem, Wilt, Oscar, David Robinson, Elgin Baylor and Bob McAdoo) have put up his current averages over the course of a full season. But Griffin isn’t better because his numbers are improved. His numbers are better because he’s improved. And even after a couple of losses to the Warriors and Rockets, the Clippers have to be excited about the rest of their season with the new Blake Griffin.

Follow Fred Katz on Twitter: @FredKatz.