Dominant Blake Griffin Makes Los Angeles Clippers Legitimate Contenders

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Dominant Blake Griffin Makes Los Angeles Clippers Legitimate Contenders
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

It's a good thing Game 1s only count as one game.

Saddled with foul trouble, Blake Griffin played just 19 minutes in the postseason opener. His Clippers were caught from behind, ultimately outlasted at home by the Golden State Warriors. But alas, Game 2 was a different story.

A 35-point story for Griffin. A 40-point blowout for the Clippers.

The Griffin we saw on Monday night looked a lot like the one who carried Los Angeles during stretches of a season in which Chris Paul played in just 62 games. He also looked like a superstar capable of carrying his team when it matters the most, against any foe the postseason has to offer.

Griffin is slowly but surely proving that he can do the kind of things we typically associate with a limited group of MVP candidates like Kevin Durant and LeBron James. He can take games over, score in a variety of different ways and make good decisions in the process. Game 2 wasn't a coming-out party or any other overstated event. It was just the next step for Griffin, evidence that he's ready to be something more for the Clippers.

NBC Sports' Kurt Helin summarizes the brilliant Game 2, writing, "Offensively, Blake Griffin ate David Lee’s lunch. He was the bully. He was aggressive going to the rim (9-of-11 shooting inside 8 feet) and when the defense focused on him and doubled he moved the ball to the open man."

NBA.com
Griffin's Game 2 shot chart.

The game was never close, and Griffin was the principal reason. When he's controlling the paint, the Clippers are virtually unstoppable, anchored by an inside-outside attack to which most teams aspire.

In case you haven't regularly tuned in to the Clippers this season, these kind of games have become more common for Griffin. He averaged 24.1 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. He scored 30 points per contest in February, stringing together a series of brilliant performances that included a 43-point outburst book-ended by two 36-point games.

Griffin is more than highlight fodder these days. He's a dynamic difference-maker, a superstar talent who's beginning to piece it altogether—Clark Kent beginning to realize the full extent of his otherworldly powers.

It didn't happen overnight. These are the results you'd expect from someone so determined to match his potential with a fully developed skill set. Practice has been pivotal according to head coach Doc Rivers (per ESPN.com's J.A. Adande):

He's working on his game every day. He's learning the things he needs to do to sharpen his tools, and I think he does that. You guys don't get a chance to see the gym when it's empty on a day off, but Blake's in there and he's putting in the right work and he's working on the right things, too. I think that's all going into him having a great year.

Rivers has no doubt been a big part of the equation, as well. He comes to the table with experience working with superstars like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, different types who all produced and won under Rivers. ESPN.com's Ramon Shelburne notes that Griffin's sharpened mental game has contributed to his performance on the court:

Rivers won't reveal the specific techniques he's used with Griffin, but whatever's been said or done has gotten the best out of him. All that talent the NBA fell in love with in Griffin's rookie season has developed into elite-level production. He finally seemed to be in control of all the power and passion that made people compare him to a young Karl Malone when he first came into the league. When the MVP results are announced in a few weeks, Griffin will likely be among the top five, perhaps higher.

And what's refreshing about this incarnation of Blake Griffin is that he won't be focused on those MVP results. Commercialized though he is, Griffin knows that winning in the here and now is his bottom line. Winning is the gateway to everything else—the accolades, the endorsements, the comparisons to Karl Malone.

None of it will last for long if the Clippers don't keep winning.

Because of Griffin, though, they look poised to go on a tear through the Western Conference.

It's hard to put a ceiling on this team. They led the league in scoring and remain pretty efficient on the defensive end, ranking fifth in opponent field-goal percentage. The Clippers are really as well-rounded as it gets. They don't suffer from an obvious vulnerability.

If there's a danger, it's that the team falls in love with too many jump shots. With capable shooters all over the floor (from Paul to J.J. Redick to Jamal Crawford), it's always a temptation. 

That's where Griffin comes in, though. When he's going right, everything else falls into place. Outside jumpers come in rhythm, through the flow of the game. Nothing is forced. The system proceeds according to plan. 

Even if Paul is the one initiating offense, it all starts with Griffin. He's the one who can demand help-defenders. He's the one who can push a defense back to the baseline. He's the one who can get to the foul line over and over again.

Paul is still a phenomenal player, but Griffin's the one who's now best-positioned to dictate games. For the Clippers to make a run, they need Griffin to be their best player. They need him to deploy his complete arsenal on a nightly basis.

As USA Today's Sam Amick put it, "He's as big as ever. He hits jumpers now. He makes the right plays. He attacks at the right times. He shows the kind of footwork and poise that simply wasn't there before." 

Welcome to the new Blake Griffin. All indications are that he's here to stay.

That's reassuring, given the tests ahead. As difficult as it will be to get past these Warriors, the conference semifinals will pose even greater challenges—likely in the form of the second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Clippers split their season series with the Thunder at two games apiece. Griffin didn't post huge scoring numbers in L.A.'s two wins, but he did average 6.5 assists. Lest we forget that we're talking about a new iteration of Griffin, that's a testament to his evolution. The Clippers aren't always at their best because of 35-point outbursts—but that inside-outside approach still requires Griffin to get his touches.

More than ever, he's using those touches to do whatever it takes to win—even if that means passing the ball.

And that's the true manifestation of dominance. Griffin is multidimensional these days, having added layers to his game that allow him to beat you in different ways. That may mean scoring outbursts against the Warriors. It may mean taking a step back against the Thunder. 

This time Griffin knows the difference. That's the scary thing.

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