Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin’s First 4 Games Back

With Chris Paul sidelined until mid-March, the Los Angeles Clippers need Blake Griffin to excel after his return from injury. Through his first four games, Griffin has done just that.

The Los Angeles Clippers were on fire to start the 2016-17 season. They won 10 of their first 11 games and posted a Net Rating of +13.4 through their first 15 games–higher than the historic numbers of the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs last season.

Blake Griffin played a huge role in the Clippers’ hot start to the year. He averaged 21 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game in 26 games through mid-December. He also played some of the best defense of his career.

Griffin had surgery on his right knee on December 20, and shortly afterward the Clippers went into a tailspin. They won their first two games after Griffin was sidelined, but proceeded to lose their next six. Although they righted the ship after that, Chris Paul sustained a thumb injury shortly before Griffin’s expected return.

With Paul out, Blake Griffin will have more playmaking responsibilities than he has had in a long time. The Clippers will also need Blake to be the defensive force that he was early in the season. His first four games back have shown that he is up to the task on offense.

Although the Clippers have only won one of those games, there were many positive signs for Griffin and the team as a whole. He has averaged 23 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists since his return. While his defense may take a little longer to round into form, that may be the biggest factor in where the Clippers end up in the standings entering the playoffs.

Offense: The Dunks Are Back

Despite the Clippers’ strong play to start the season, there were some concerns about Blake Griffin’s offense. Griffin shot nearly as many midrange jumpers in his first 26 games as shots in the restricted area.

He took 179 shots in the restricted area and 168 in the midrange, per NBA.com. That showed a continuation of the trend from last season when he actually took 315 midrange shots and just 215 in the restricted area.

Although developing his midrange game has been a boon to his offense overall, Griffin’s best offensive skill is still attacking the basket. In spite of his athleticism, Griffin would often opt for a midrange jumper over attacking the rim:

Griffin has a brief moment with a decently open lane to the rim after a Ray Felton back screen on Ed Davis. Instead of taking it, Blake opts for the easy jump shot. After leading the league in dunks his rookie year with 214, Griffin made just 25 in his first 26 games.

Blake has been far more aggressive at attacking the rim since his return. He has attempted 30 shots at the rim and only 19 from midrange. He has already made nine dunks in four games, and is back to jumping over other players:

The sample size may be small, but Griffin already seems to have more burst than he did early in the season. He will need to continue to attack the rim aggressively to keep the Clippers afloat for the rest of the season.

Playmaking: Leading The Charge

Blake Griffin has been one of the best passing and ball-handling bigs in the league for quite a while. However, he does not get much opportunity to show those skills with Chris Paul on the floor.

While that makes perfect sense for the Clippers (Paul is still too good of a floor general to make anyone else the primary ballhandler), CP3’s absence has given Blake a chance to show off his playmaking chops. Few point guards could make this pass, much less a big man:

Although Griffin’s assist numbers have been slightly down in his first four games back compared to his season totals, part of that is an artifact of reduced minutes since his return. Griffin is averaging 33 minutes per game for the season but only 29 in his first four games back. Still, with Paul out, those numbers are likely to skyrocket in the weeks to come.

Griffin’s increased role as a ball-handler has also given him the opportunity to show off his handle. He does not have the incredible wizardry with the ball that Chris Paul does, but he has quite a few tricks in the bag himself:

Griffin’s ability to generate plays like this off the dribble is more important than ever with Paul out. There should be more brilliant passes and coast-to-coast drives in the days to come as the rust wears off.

Defense: Time To Shine

Part of the Clippers’ hot start was Blake Griffin’s emergence as a defensive stalwart. Griffin has never been a turnstile on that end. However, there were concerns in the early portion of his career about his defensive ceiling.

Those concerns seem more unwarranted now than ever before. After posting a stellar 100.0 Defensive Rating last season, Griffin is again above average with a 103.2 Defensive Rating. Those numbers might be skewed by playing alongside three excellent defenders in Paul, DeAndre Jordan, and Luc Mbah a Moute. However, Griffin’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus is a solid 0.95 — in the top third of the league for power forwards.

Part of his defensive growth has been his improved ability to jump into opposing passing lanes. Griffin does not have a massive wingspan like some of the other great steals mavens, but his activity has led to a number of turnovers. Griffin is averaging 1.1 steals per game, his highest since the 2012-13 season. His Steal Percentage is 18.4 percent this season, per NBA.com, also his highest since 2012-13. He intercepted three passes in their last game against Golden State, including this pure effort play:

Despite being at a height and length disadvantage against Kevin Durant, Griffin reads the play perfectly and generates some points for the Clippers. With Chris Paul (currently leading the league in steals) out for another few weeks, Blake will need to continue to make plays just like this one.

Looking Forward: The Playoff Push

Even with both Paul and Griffin missing significant stretches of this season, the Clippers remain in the hunt for home court advantage. They are currently tied for fourth in the Western Conference with the Utah Jazz. While the Jazz have also had quite a few injury concerns, Los Angeles cannot rely on them to continue to struggle.

Home court advantage would be a huge asset to the Clippers. However, they will also need to consider potential seeding implications. The Clippers may want to avoid the fourth or fifth seed and the Warriors. With Chris Paul out, they might end up falling past the Jazz and the Memphis Grizzlies regardless.

Much of the rest of the Clippers’ season will depend on Blake Griffin. He has shown that he can carry the load on offense as both a scorer and a playmaker. He has also been solid on defense and shown flashes of brilliance.

If he can continue to drive to the rim as effectively as he has since his injury and create plays for himself and others, the Clippers may end up missing Chris Paul far less than they may have feared.

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