PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — The Los Angeles Clippers' media day brought with it a predictable peppering of questions concerning the team's fourth-quarter collapse in Game 5 of last season's second-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
What went wrong? What could they have done differently? What did they learn from that heartbreaking—and, ultimately, championship chase-ending—experience?
"I understand last year we had a great opportunity, and Game 5 was horrible," Chris Paul recalled. "It’s no secret why we lost Game 5, but I think this year gives us an opportunity to get right back there."
Presumably, Paul will be the one to lead the way. After all, this Clippers team has been his since he first arrived in the fall of 2011. Among the team's talented trio, including Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, he's easily the most veteran and the most accomplished, with enough All-Star appearances (seven) and All-NBA (six) and All-Defensive nods (six) to comprise an impressive resume.
What he lacks, of course, is a trip to the conference finals, much less a Larry O'Brien Trophy. As it happens, those fateful few minutes in OKC, the ones the Clippers spent the summer simultaneously contemplating deeply and trying to forget, could prove instructive as Paul and Co. look to take the team into uncharted territory.
Lost amid Paul's poor play, in his attempt to do it all for the Clippers in crunch time, was the absence of any meaningful contributions from Griffin. The four-time All-Star didn't make a single shot from the field in that fourth quarter and didn't so much as attempt one during the final five minutes of play.
His lone contributions in the clutch? A pair of rebounds, a block and one made free throw, with another miss during his trip to the stripe.
This, from a guy who finished third in MVP voting, behind only Kevin Durant and LeBron James. This, from one of the faces of the franchise.
"It shouldn’t fall on one person," Griffin said of this particular shortfall. "You hear this all the time, but one guy can’t win or lose on his own. It’s not fair to put any type of blame on anybody, because we were all out there playing."
They'll all be back in 2014-15, with a greater need than ever for Griffin to be The Guy.
Part of that has to do with Paul. He's 29 now, with the big 3-0 awaiting him in early May. He's fought through more than his fair share of injuries over the years. And as great as it can be and often is to watch him take over games down the stretch, there are those times, as in Game 5 against OKC, when his performance suffers under the weight of tired legs and tough defenses.
According to NBA.com, Paul hit just 40.6 percent of his attempts in the clutch (i.e. the final five minutes of a game, with a margin of five points or fewer) during the regular season and saw that number slip to an even 40 percent in the playoffs.
But those CP3-centric concerns merely open the door for another star to step in as support. Griffin would seem as ready, and as obvious a choice, as any Clipper to do just that—certainly after the campaign he put together in 2013-14.
"Blake was terrific," Doc Rivers said of his power forward's prolific season. "I thought he got better and better as the year went on."
On the whole, Griffin took on more offensive responsibility than he ever had. The Oklahoma native registered career highs in points (24.1), field-goal attempts (17.0) and usage rate (29.0), all of which doubled as tops on the team.
Some of those increases stemmed from the month Paul missed with a shoulder injury. During that time, Griffin averaged a whopping 27.5 points (on 55.4 percent shooting) and 4.4 assists while leading L.A. to a 12-6 record.
With or without Paul, Griffin was no longer the late-game liability he'd been under Vinny Del Negro. The 4.6 points he averaged in the fourth quarter were nice, but it was Griffin's free-throw shooting that opened the most eyes. He hit 71.5 percent of his freebies during the regular season, including 74.8 percent in the final frame, and upped the ante to 74.0 percent and 76.5 percent, respectively, in the playoffs.
Those aren't exactly earth-shattering numbers, but for a guy who'd made just 61.1 percent of his foul shots during his first three seasons as a pro, those percentage points constitute a considerable difference in both accuracy and trustworthiness. And it's possible, if not probable, that Griffin will continue to improve in this regard after another summer spent working closely with his shooting coach.
There's much more to Griffin's game than just shooting free throws, though. And there's certainly more to winning games and competing for championships than having a particular set of skills. The secret about basketball, as Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas relayed in Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball, is that it's not about basketball; it's about relationships and personalities, managing egos and demonstrating leadership, among other things.
"As far as leadership goes, I think we all three lead in different ways," Griffin said, referring to Paul and Jordan, both of whom sat to his right onstage. "For me, it’s about trying to lead by example, doing things. I’m not always the guy that’s going to be talking a lot in the huddle, but every game I want to be a guy the guys can depend on down the stretch and depend on to work hard and take care of myself and do the things I need to do."
The idea of Griffin being the strong, silent type doesn't comport so easily with his public persona. To those whose exposure to him is limited to car commercials and YouTube clips, Griffin comes off as a gregarious goofball. To those who know him, though, Griffin is far from William Wallace.
"It’s hilarious to see Blake on SNL and doing sketch, you know, because if you just seen him in the locker room, you wouldn’t even think that this is who he was," explained Chris Douglas-Roberts, whose relationship with Griffin dates back to well before CDR's arrival in L.A. this summer. "He’s very quiet, very reserved. You have to really get to know him to understand that he’s really a funny guy."
Not that Griffin hasn't changed, that he hasn't grown more comfortable in the spotlight now that he's been in it for as long as he has.
"I don’t think people understand that Blake had so much so fast that people think he’s 30," said Matt Barnes. "Blake’s 25, if I’m not mistaken [Note: He's not mistaken], so he’s had a lot on his plate from the beginning, and I think being a leader is something that’s obviously in you but you have to learn as well, and I think he’s doing a great job of that."
Fortunately for Griffin, he doesn't have to step outside of his comfort zone in this regard in order for the Clippers to thrive. He can lean on Paul and Jordan, both of whom serve as seminal voices among the players, to do the talking.
"You can lead in your own way," Griffin went on. "You just have to be comfortable with it, because at the end of the day, it’s not the guy who’s going to talk the most or who's going work out the hardest or yell at everybody. It’s the guy that guys want to follow."
Griffin just might be that guy this season. He's already one of them, and if Blake takes that all-important next step—from productive star to crunch-time killer, from quiet leader to bona fide ringleader—the Clippers could be well on their way to leaving their failures, recent and distant alike, well behind them.
As Barnes put it, "We go as far as he takes us."
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