Like a steak thrown onto a pan that’s been simmering for too long, Blake Griffin is sizzling – seemingly out of nowhere. He has been the NBA’s best postseason performer, averaging 25.2 points, 13.3 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game, putting the Los Angeles Clippers one win away from their first Conference Finals berth in franchise history. The optics tell us this was sudden, like the pop and sizzle of overheated cooking oil, but intuition tells us these things take time. Progress accumulates; its articulation doesn’t necessarily take on the same trajectory. Griffin, if we’re willing to overextend this metaphor and literally compare a person to meat, has waited beside the stove for years.
Those of us who saw hallucinatory flashes of LeBron James in Griffin’s rookie season have been punishing him for it ever since. Now that those visions are truly bearing out, the LeBron comparison has regained traction. More than anything, the two relate by way of common difference. They are genetic anomalies who play the game with such deceptive ease that mere greatness isn’t enough to satisfy viewers. It’s self-evident that abstract notions – faith, potential, hope – are best understood philosophically. They don’t have an equivalent in the tangible realm. But watching that rare and potent combination of athleticism and intelligence prompts us to push intangible feelings to their logical extreme, setting players like LeBron and Griffin up for inevitable disappointment. On some level, they represent so much potential and elicit so much hype that we’re deluded into actually thinking they can make our lives better, as though Kevin Durant actually walks around the suburbs cleaning gutters. We expect them to transcend basketball, whatever that means, nothing short of ripping through the screen and finishing our chores.
That kind of transcendence, of course, is bullshit; a placeholder for the fact that we can’t figure out what exactly we want from these athletic marvels. It’s a terribly stupid setup, but the brain often denies logic and on occasion, leaves us somewhat vindicated: LeBron in 2012-13, the second half of Durant’s MVP season and of course, Griffin right now.
It started with the jump shot. Two years ago, Griffin was an abysmal 35.1 percent shooter from mid-range. Last year, he improved to 37.1 percent – close to the league average – and this season, he rose to a formidable 40.3 percent. Early into the season, an increased barrage of jumpers came with a litany of complaints. Griffin was playing too far from the rim and minimizing his strengths: playmaking and hitting the boards. He registered a career-low 7.6 rebounds in the regular season. In reality, Griffin was varnishing his final weapon so he could manipulate every square inch of the high post.
In the postseason, with the J at his disposal, but rarely deployed at the expense of a potentially better shot, Griffin’s attack has become more refined. Even though he improved in the post last season, he was still more blunt instrument than Swiss Army knife. Not only is Blake now leveraging his shot to attack the post more (he can body up anyone on Houston from 12 feet now and attack the middle), he is harnessing his athleticism to maximize the utility of a dynamic – albeit graceless – post repertoire, combining agility, aggressiveness and strength to the tune of 0.95 points per possession in the regular season and top-10 in attempts. Choosing between a Dwight Howard beatdown and the floor is Houston’s version of a rock and a hard place. Griffin hasn’t relented, attempting to sneak through the crevasse at every chance and trying his hand at turning garbage into gold, or at least getting Howard into foul trouble. The occasions when Blake misses simply draw focus to the attention he now warrants, as a second-chance opportunity is often a near-guarantee. That career-low in boards? He’s grabbing 13.3 per game in the playoffs, second only to frontcourt pal DeAndre Jordan. It seems like Griffin just doesn’t care how many times he gets knocked out of the air. As a non-aerial being, I’m just trying my best to fully appreciate that.
In transition, whether he’s whipping the ball to the corner for J.J. Redick or dishing a lead pass to Matt Barnes, Point Blake is a marvel. And yet, it’s his half-court sorcery that truly dazzles. So much of the time with great players, we scream at the TV and wonder why they did A instead of B until finally, they start letting option C develop, something no one – not us, not the announcers and most importantly, not the defense – ever sees coming. Griffin has always been a tremendous playmaker, and thanks to the elevated threat of his jumper and post game, it’s impossible to know what’s going to happen when he takes off anymore. Lob? Floater? Dunk? Layup? Wrap-around pass?
At this point, the mere threat of Griffin is enough to provoke terror. He demands so much attention from the opposing defense that the gravity of his presence, whether he touches the ball or not, is enough to create shots for his teammates. How many open jumpers has Redick nailed because Houston would rather let a pure shooter let it fly than give Griffin a chance to catch the ball? Even Chris Paul is having an easier time getting loose.
Ironically, in this sense, what Griffin represents on the court is again more potent in the abstract than tangibly. With possession, the real Blake Griffin is a terror. But a Griffin of the mind still lives on, looming larger in the fear of every defender. Opposing coaches: unleash him at your own peril.