On Christmas, it was Blake Griffin's ejection. A month later, Chris Paul's shoulder injury. With Griffin and Paul both on the floor for crunch time, the Clippers finally had a chance to get the Golden State monkey off their back.
Griffin made sure they did just that.
The All-Star forward scored 30 points, and Danny Granger had his finest game as a Clipper, as Los Angeles earned its night straight victory with a 111-98 triumph over the Warriors on Wednesday night.
In a matchup that often felt like two teams attempting to prove themselves among the Western elite, the atmosphere felt playoff-like. The Staples Center crowd roared with every Griffin touch, prepared to erupt any time the Clippers hit the open court and rose to their feet to commemorate one of the better regular-season wins of the season.
The Clippers had lost each of their last two against Golden State. Considering the two teams would play each other in the first round if the regular season ended now, protecting home court was critical for a confidence boost.
While Paul turned in one of his worst performances of the season, Griffin and surprisingly spry performances from Granger and Willie Green helped pick up the slack. Working against David Lee and Draymond Green in the post, Griffin was aggressive and physical from the outset. His 28 field-goal attempts were the second highest of his entire career, behind only the Clippers' loss to Miami on Feb. 5.
Griffin has scored 20 or more points in a career-high 24 straight contests, dating back to a Jan. 20 game against the Pistons. The streak began during Paul's shoulder injury, a time in which Griffin proved to himself and teammates he could be the top option on a playoff team. Now that Paul is back in the lineup, that dynamic has continued and Griffin has exuded an increased confidence.
After the game—and after a post-game confrontation with Jermaine O'Neal in the hallway—Griffin used the word proud to describe his team's effort, per Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:
I was just proud of our team. - Blake Griffin— Dan Woike (@DanWoikeSports) March 13, 2014
At certain points on Wednesday, Griffin was left to do far too much on his own. Paul, struggling with consistency with his outside shot since returning from his shoulder injury, shot just 5-of-15 from the field for 16 points. He added 12 assists and eight rebounds, but the Warriors were happily allowing him to take outside jumpers in the second half.
The point guard struggles carried over to the other bench, where Golden State played the final minutes without Stephen Curry. On the second night of a back-to-back and still dealing with a quad injury, Curry scored just 13 points in a little less than 30 minutes on the floor. He took more of a distributor's role, dishing out 11 assists, but it was obvious how much the Warriors offense craters when he's on the bench.
Golden State was outscored 57-42 in the second half after holding a two-point lead at the break, shooting just 39.4 percent from the floor. Klay Thompson led the way with 15 second-half points to finish with a team-high 26. David Lee, who played the starring role in the first half, finished with 20 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
With Curry obviously hobbled, Steve Blake's zero-point night on 0-of-6 shooting proved all the more critical. Blake was acquired with Curry absences in mind, as previous options like Jordan Crawford and Tony Douglas failed to adequately run the offense.
The Clippers, meanwhile, got solid nights all around from players stepping into unfamiliar roles. Granger went 7-of-11 from the field and seems to be coming into his own as a spot-up shooter within Doc Rivers' system. He's now set Clippers highs in minutes and points in each of the last two games, an encouraging sign with J.J. Redick's status still in the air.
Jovan Buha of Fox Sports noted this wasn't just Granger's best game as a Clipper—it was his best in a long, long time:
This is Danny Granger's best game in two years.— Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) March 13, 2014
Green added 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting. In a battle with noted antagonist Andrew Bogut, DeAndre Jordan also came out the victor. Jordan scored 10 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked six shots as Bogut spent much of his night in foul trouble.
For the Clippers, now creeping up on Oklahoma City for the No. 2 seed, this was a game filled with nothing but positive signs. Even with Paul struggling, Griffin took the reins of the offense and unrelentingly attacked—the latest sign of his ongoing leap as a player.
While it's likely Paul will reassume a more aggressive leadership role during the playoffs—he has a habit of conserving energy, going back to his New Orleans days—this run is nothing but good signs for May and June. The Clippers came into the season with a reputation of being easily flustered, talented but not emotionally stable enough to be a championship contender.
Griffin exemplified that more than anyone. A two-month run of MVP-level basketball from Griffin and a nine-game winning streak from the Clippers later, it might be time to start talking about this team as the favorite out West.
|David Lee, PF||B|
|Andre Iguodala, SF||B-|
|Andrew Bogut, C||C|
|Stephen Curry, PG||C+|
|Klay Thompson, SG||B|
|Harrison Barnes, SF||C-|
|Draymond Green, SF||C+|
|Jermaine O'Neal, C||C-|
|Steve Blake, PG||D|
|Jordan Crawford, SG||D|
|Marreese Speights, PF||C|
|Blake Griffin, PF||A|
|Matt Barnes, SF||C+|
|DeAndre Jordan, C||B|
|Chris Paul, PG||C+|
|Darren Collison, PG||C|
|Glen Davis, PF||C|
|Danny Granger, SF||B+|
|Hedo Turkoglu, SF||C|
|Willie Green, SG||B|
|Jared Dudley, SF||C|
Players of the Game: Blake Griffin (PF, Clippers), David Lee (PF, Warriors)
Because of his polarizing reputation among fans, Griffin hasn't gotten nearly the amount of recognition he deserves for his play this season. He's a vastly improved player on both ends of the floor, showing a versatility in his offensive game some still refuse to acknowledge and at least a solid understanding of Doc Rivers' defensive system.
As Griffin continues having nights like these, though, his ascent is getting harder to ignore. Facing a team that antagonized him into getting ejected from their Christmas Day game and blew out the Clippers without Paul in January, Griffin came out with an aggression that's been so prevalent and encouraging during this streak.
He took 15 first-half field goals, and even though his jumper wasn't quite on point, the Warriors' increased respect for it allowed him to do work in the paint. Other players across the league might not love Griffin. The amount of scuffles he gets into down low is pretty much evident of that by itself. But he's playing so well and affecting the game in so many different ways offensively, teams have to respect him any time the ball is in his hands.
There's plenty of time still remaining this season, and Griffin could regress. At this point, though, I'd have a tough time keeping Griffin out of that No. 3-5 spot on a potential MVP ballot.
Speaking of players who don't get enough credit, Lee's massive contract has long prevented folks from putting him in the proper hierarchy among offensive bigs. Because he's paid like a superstar and essentially plays a designated hitter role, there are some who unfairly criticize Lee as a weakness on the roster.
Those who have watched all season and know of the Warriors' offensive struggles would tell you the opposite. He and Griffin are among the two best passing bigs in the league, and Mark Jackson loves running plays to Lee out of the high post. With Curry still noticeably limited and taking on more of a distributor's role, Lee needed to have a solid game.
It wasn't his best performance, and he and Thompson could certainly split this nod. Lee gets the nod, simply because he was more of a focal point within the flow of the offense.
Despite the back-to-back, there will be no extended break for the Warriors. They have just a day off before hosting the Cleveland Cavaliers at Oracle Arena. The Clippers are also in action Friday, traveling to Salt Lake City to take on the Jazz.
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