Very different were the looks on their faces—exactly what you’d expect of each after Griffin’s foul-induced no-show in the Los Angeles Clippers’ 109-105 loss to the Golden State Warriors in their playoff opener Saturday at Staples Center.
Griffin’s face was blank, and he was still a little confused as to how he could’ve been rendered so impotent after his avalanche of forward progress this season.
Paul’s brow was still furrowed. He wasn’t going to stop being annoyed for some time. But he was at least going to let off some steam by getting his point across more publicly.
“It was tough; it was huge,” Paul soon said about Griffin’s limited presence, which included fouling out with 48 seconds left in a tie game. “Blake is our go-to guy, contrary to what people might think. We play through BG. As you can see, he’s tough to guard. When he only plays 19 minutes, that’s tough.”
Being a team’s go-to guy should never be confused with being a team’s alpha male.
Paul will hold the latter title for as long as the NBA’s not allowing trades for him to become Kobe Bryant’s teammate. With that title comes the obligation to take care of more than just your own business.
Paul was telling Griffin during the game: “I need you. I need you.” He was unabashed in admitting his own energy was draining from being the primary defender in the Clippers’ traps against Stephen Curry. Meanwhile, every basketball junkie watching the other end could see how the Warriors’ traps led by rangy Klay Thompson were making it hard for Paul to attack, one reason Paul wound up hitting five of nine three-point shots in his 28-point game. But Paul certainly didn’t close well either.
Even though Paul wanted to go home as soon as possible to review video and beat himself up for his miscues that could’ve saved the game, he knew his job was to beat up a little on Griffin first.
Doc Rivers’ presence here means the Clippers have the tools to be a great playoff team, not just a good regular-season team. But becoming a playoff machine looks a long way away right now—with a near-must-win game Monday night and then the daunting challenge of winning against a Warriors team with a traditionally overwhelming home-court advantage (and victories in 15 of the past 17 games against the visiting Clippers).
Paul wanted to make sure this painful lesson leaves a nice scar by Monday night, one that toughens up the team’s go-to guy.
So after a variety of questions about the game had come and gone, Paul brought it back to Griffin, unsolicited.
“We need 32, though,” said Paul, referring to Griffin’s number and adding the adverb to show he was indeed introducing the different topic all on his own. “It’s no secret. We need BG.”
It’s a convenient excuse to blame the touchy officiating, and Griffin’s fifth foul was particularly one that should’ve been let go. Paul got in a little foul trouble, too.
Yet Griffin went into this 18th career playoff game with it predetermined in his mind that he could be hands-on without a lot of whistles, as he’d experienced before in the playoffs.
“The series we played last year and the year before that were way, way, way more physical,” Griffin said. “So it’s kind of hard to know what you can get away with and what you can’t. But like I said, I have to be smarter in that area and not put us in that situation.”
You know who was smarter? Jermaine O’Neal, playing his 91st playoff game in his 18th NBA season. Remember that O’Neal stirred it up with Griffin in the teams’ last meeting, barking at Griffin for a semi-flop and barking even louder in the Staples corridor postgame into Griffin’s face before ending it with a handshake.
Griffin played 42 minutes that night, scored a game-high 30 points, and the Clippers won before O’Neal went after him. The oft-criticized Griffin clearly was geared up to assert himself physically in the playoff opener for all watching the ABC telecast to see. The refs, however, were geared up not to let the bad blood get spilled.
“I’m sure that Blake would like to have a couple of those fouls back,” Rivers said.
If it sounds like O’Neal played this all pretty masterfully, he did. It’s why Warriors assistant coach Lindsey Hunter was congratulating O’Neal on the bench with a smile on his face and a gentle fist to O’Neal’s chest with 13.9 seconds left, telling O’Neal that no matter how the score turns out, he did his job. O’Neal backed up his mind games and tough talk with 13 points and a critical paint presence for a Golden State team missing injured center Andrew Bogut.
Griffin got the ball on the Clippers’ first five possessions of the second half as Rivers tried to get his go-to guy into a rhythm, but ultimately Griffin rushed his two-foot flip shot with 50.8 seconds left in a 105-105 game. Griffin got a perfect deep seal in the post, Paul bounced the ball to him in perfect time and space, and Griffin missed.
That was his moment to bolt down the path of redemption in this game, especially after he’d made up for Paul’s missed fast-break chance by nailing both free throws from an O’Neal foul. After those free throws, Griffin clapped his hands and looked to the crowd across from the Clippers’ bench, exhorting his fans and himself: “Let’s go!”
But he couldn’t keep it up, missed the tip after that rushed miss of what he called “a point-blank shot,” and then fouled David Lee in frustration, fouling out of the game.
Griffin said the last foul was “dumb.” Paul wasn’t disagreeing.
While Paul did agree with Rivers’ assessment that Griffin (16 points on 6-of-13 shooting) couldn’t get in rhythm shuttling in and out of the game, please look carefully at the specific phraseology Paul used as Griffin’s bottom line: “He couldn’t stay out on the court.”
That’s the hard truth, one that Paul wants to weigh on Griffin from now until Monday night…so it doesn’t have to weigh on both of them all offseason.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.