Blake Griffin Under Pressure as L.A. Clippers' Playoff Demons Loom

Jared Dubin@@JADubin5Featured ColumnistApril 16, 2016

Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin dunks during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks, Sunday, April 10, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Just before the start of the 2015-16 NBA season, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers admitted if his team did not make a deep run in the playoffs, it might be time to shake things up. 

“We’re right on the borderline,” Rivers told Zach Lowe, who was with Grantland at the time. “I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work. We’re right at the edge."

Fast-forward eight months. The Clippers are headed into the postseason as the Western Conference's No. 4 seed. They went 53-29 in the regular season, good for the league's sixth-best record. They outscored their opponents by 4.3 points per game, good for the NBA's sixth-best point differential. They also finished with the NBA's sixth-best offense and tied for the fourth-best defense, per NBA.com

And they did it all mostly without Blake Griffin's help.

Seeds of Confidence or Doubt? 

Griffin left the Clippers' Christmas Day win over the rival Los Angeles Lakers with a quad injury. The Clippers announced the following day Griffin had a partial tear of that muscle and was to be re-evaluated in two weeks. A month later, with Griffin still not back from the injury, ESPN reported he had broken his right hand after punching the team's assistant equipment manager (and Griffin's friend)—Matias Testi. 

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Blake wound up sitting another two months with the hand and quad injuries and then an additional four games as the result of a team-ordered suspension for punching Testi. All told, Blake missed 45 consecutive contests. 

The Clippers won 30 of the 45, good for the NBA's sixth-best record during that span. They had the league's sixth-best offense and fifth-best defense with Griffin out, and their pace-adjusted scoring margin of plus-6.8 points per 100 possessions was the league's third-best, per NBA.com

The Clippers got Chris Paul's usual brand of brilliance during that Griffin-less stretch, and DeAndre Jordan shone as well. The team mostly played "four-out" basketball, slotting a perimeter player into the 4 spot to provide better spacing for those Paul-Jordan pick-and-rolls in the middle of the court. 

Sneakily, though, the Clippers don't actually have many ace perimeter shooters. With the exception of Paul and the little-used C.J. Wilcox, there wasn't a single sniper on the Clips that topped the NBA average of 35.4 percent from beyond the arc. Except, of course, J.J. Redick, who led the whole league at 47.5 percent. 

A New Wheel or Replacement?

HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 16:  J.J. Redick #4 and Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers wait on the court during their game against the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center on March 16, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Though it was Paul who shouldered the largest share of the additional workload with Griffin out, the Clippers would not have kept humming along without Redick sliding seamlessly into the secondary-scorer role after operating as a tertiary option for so long.

Redick already worked himself from rotation afterthought to valuable bench piece to quality starter during the last 10 years. Next he registered career highs in both usage rate (22.4 percent) and true shooting percentage (63.2), accomplishing the brutal task of raising his efficiency despite carrying a larger burden. (There is typically a trade-off in one direction or the other, but not here.)

He averaged 17.3 points per game while shooting 47.8 percent from the field and 47.9 percent from three with Griffin out. He did it with his usual array of handoffs and spot-ups, pindowns and flares. Had the Clippers needed him to, it seems likely he'd have kept on doing it right through their playoff run, whether Griffin returned to the floor or not. (Redick's lingering heel injury notwithstanding.)

Griffin did return at the beginning of April, and though Redick's scoring average dropped in the five games they shared (to 14.6 per game), that's only because his minutes did, too. His usage rate stayed almost exactly the same (22.0 percent, down slightly from 22.6), and he somehow upped his efficiency even more (70.4 true shooting). 

Don't Fit in, Just Fit

"I don't want anybody to change the way they've played at all," Rivers said before his team defeated the Dallas Mavericks last Sunday. "I want everybody to stay the exact same. When Blake came back, I told him, 'Just jump in. Don't try to fit back in.' And I told the guys, 'Don't try to fit him back in. We'll find our way.' I think each game and each practice we have, we'll get better at it." 

Apr 10, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers protests a call to referees during the third quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

"I'm just trying to play the way we play, is really how I've approached it," Griffin said. "I've put a lot more emphasis defensivelymaking sure I'm on rotations, making sure I'm there for guys—and letting the offense kind of come to me. I'm trying not to force anything." 

While that ethos is a good attitude to take, it has also occasionally manifested with a jumper that is simply not falling at its usual rate since Griffin returned from injury.

Typically a high-30s to low-40s mid-range shooter at this stage of his career (he was shooting 39.4 percent from that area prior to the quad injury), Blake has made only six of 21 shots from the mid-range area since he got back, "good" for only 28.6 percent.

Not only is the shot missing, but Griffin is also settling for it far too often. Since his return, he has popped out off his screens 52.5 percent of the time, per B/R Insights. That figure is up from 31.0 percent prior to his injury.

Griffin's far better off rolling, whether all the way to the rim or simply to the elbows. Luckily, both Blake and the Clippers recognized the trend and made a point of rectifying it during the second half of that win over the Mavericks.

"Teams have to make choices if teams decide to put two on the ball in a Chris Paul pick-and-roll, and Blake has shooters on either side," Redick said, noting a particular sequence during the win over Dallas where Griffin caught the ball above the free-throw line on a pick-and-roll and then had him open in one corner and Jamal Crawford open in the other. The play resulted in a corner three for Crawford.

It worked the same way when Griffin found Jordan under the rim for a lob off similar action. 

Those are the kind of plays that make the Clippers offense sing—Griffin doesn't force anything; he just uses his all-around skill set to help Paul with the shot-creation burden, unlocking Redick, Crawford and Jordan's talents in the process. 

"I always want to pass the ball, always want to rebound, play defense," Griffin said. "When the shot's not falling (and it will), I can get a rhythm doing all those other things."

What Is Enough?

Since he's been back, those "other things" have been there on a night-to-night basis, even if his shot hasn't. In just 24.5 minutes a game, Blake has racked up an average of 6.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists—per-minute numbers in line with his recent season averages.

Even without his typical explosion going toward the rim, his skill level is so high that he's still able to make plays. As Paul put it, "Just his presence is big for us." And it is. 

But the Clippers will need Peak Blake, a player who isn't quite back just yet, Griffin admitted. "My conditioning's not quite there; strength's not quite there," he said. "But it's getting there."

The Clippers don't have much time to wait. It's possible they can sneak past the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round without a fully operational Griffin, but there's no way they can put more than a minor scare into the defending champion Golden State Warriors during the second round if the real Blake doesn't show up. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Even then, the Clippers are still staring at pretty slim odds of advancing past the Dubs. The FiveThirtyEight projection system gives them just a 12 percent chance of making the conference finals, and even that feels a little high. The Clippers have played Golden State tough these last two years, but they've also lost seven of the eight games (cumulative scoring margin: 45 points, an average of 5.6 per game). 

The Clips previously trolled about how the Warriors were "lucky" not to face them in the playoffs last year, and it's going to be put-up-or-shut-up time pretty soon.

“You need luck in the West,” Rivers told Grantland before the season. “Look at Golden State. They didn’t have to play us or the Spurs. But that’s also a lesson for us: When you have a chance to close, you have to do it.” 

After Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson responded in kind, Rivers went out and called them overly sensitive to criticism. 

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

And then the Warriors beat them in all four regular-season games this season. 

Another second-round out, especially at the hands of the Dubs, would be a bitter disappointment, of course. This is a team that has averaged 52.4 wins since the Paul-Griffin-Jordan trio was united back in 2011—only the Spurs and Thunder have won more, per Basketball-Reference.com—and yet has not advanced to even the conference finals, let alone the championship series. 

As Rivers himself said, after a while things just start to get stale. Given the talent on hand, another loss might convince him this particular iteration of the Clippers has gotten to that point.

Both Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical reported earlier this season that if the Clippers were to break up their core, Griffin would be the one who's on the block. Two rounds of the playoffs isn't a whole lot of time to convince Doc that it would be a mistake to make that choice, especially given the fact that he's not yet at full strength.  

All quotes obtained first hand. All statistics via NBA.com/stats or Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.


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