Blake Griffin drives on Tim Duncan. (Getty Images)
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"If you lived in the Dark Ages, and you were a catapult operator, I bet the most common question people would ask is, 'Can't you make it shoot farther?' No. I'm sorry. That's as far as it shoots."
Here's to Blake Griffin, last year's most venerated turned this year's most denigrated, who attempted 91 shots in 248 total minutes over seven games played against the Memphis Grizzlies, with just 13 coming outside the paint.
Of those baker's dozen, he made just three — two long corner jumpers at the start of Game 6 that made everyone watching say, "Oh, well, if he's going to hit that, then Memphis is going home tonight" and a 14-footer in the first quarter of Game 7. That's it; everything else came within 10 feet of the basket. That's very much in keeping with what we've seen from the former No. 1 overall pick in his two full seasons in the league — of the 2,398 field goals he's attempted during two regular seasons with the Clips, 1,690 (70.5 percent) have come in the paint, according to NBA.com.
The temptation is to say, "Well, of course — all he does is dunk on fast breaks." But while a lot of Griffin's field goals have been slams (406, according to CBSSports.com's Dunk-O-Meter) and a lot of his attempts have come in transition (362, according to play-type analysis from MySynergySports.com), a lot of them also come off post-up attempts. And while no one's going to call Griffin a wizard on the low block, the fact remains that he does get into the paint, he does get the shots up, and he does get his points, averaging better than 20 points a night in each of his first two seasons and 18 a game on 52.7 percent shooting in the opening round, with the lion's share of his shots coming right in the teeth of the Grizzlies defense.
Heading into Round 2 against San Antonio, Griffin's not going to be banging bodies with bruisers like Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, but rather matching up against an array of defenders he can both overpower and outmaneuver — guys like Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner and even Tim Duncan. As CBSSports.com's Matt Moore noted Tuesday in a great breakdown of how the Spurs defended Griffin during their three regular-season meetings, San Antonio's best success "came in playing off Griffin in the pick and roll, allowing him the catch, and daring him to take the mid-range jumper." Blake's not unwilling to pop it to stretch the defense, but doing so is ostensibly playing with his weak hand; any possession that results in a Griffin attempt from mid-range is one with which Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will likely be pleased.
Interestingly enough, the Spurs also fared comparatively well when Griffin actually got to the rack. While the All-Star power forward averaged 21.7 points and 12.7 rebounds on 52.9 percent shooting in L.A.'s matchups with the Spurs this season, he made only 17 of his 29 attempts at the rim (58.6 percent), according to Hoopdata's shot location statistics, a far cry from his 73.7 percent season average, and the Clips lost two of the three games. So even if Blake gets to his spot — read: the rim — there's no guarantee he'll convert at a rate significant enough to swing the balance of power all by his lonesome.
Still, if you're Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, you'd probably be pretty thrilled if the series unfolds in a way that results in Griffin getting about 10 shots at the tin a night. If Blake's getting to the rim that frequently, it likely means the Clippers are either getting out in transition with regularity — and that's not something the Spurs defend particularly well, ranking 20th among 30 NBA teams in points allowed per transition possession during the season, per Synergy — or that Griffin is winning his one-on-one matchups on the block so convincingly that the Spurs will eventually have to consider at least shading a help defender toward him, if not bringing help outright, which is not something the Spurs want to do.
If the Spurs have to start accounting for Griffin as a legitimate threat to score in the post — and again, we're not saying he's a post player as much as he is an athletic marvel who can win individual matchups against multiple types of defenders — then that could change the shape of the Spurs' half-court defense. It could open passing lanes for Blake — a good passer for a big who's averaged about 3.5 assists per 36 minutes as a pro — to outside shooters like Randy Foye, Nick Young and Mo Williams, or present clearer angles of attack for Chris Paul, who will likely be worked into a pretty solid lather from attacking the hell out of the Spurs already.
You'd already expect San Antonio to struggle with Paul's efficiency in the pick-and-roll game — they rank dead-last in defending ball-handlers on the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy, while the Clippers behind Paul were the league's third-best offense at the ball-handler producing points and the seventh-best at hitting the roll man for a bucket — and for Popovich to know that a steady diet of high ball screens for CP3 is coming, and to try to tailor his defensive schemes (keyed, in all likelihood, by wing defenders Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard) toward mitigating them. If Griffin can win in the post, hit more than 23 percent of those wide-open jumpers he'll likely see and give San Antonio trouble plugging a second source of leaks in the half-court, then San Antonio can't load up on L.A.'s pick-and-roll game, which could mean a field day for Paul, which could mean that this series becomes veeeeeery interesting.
All that said ... personally? I don't see it. I think Griffin will put up admirable lines and settle somewhere around 20 and 10 for the series, but I expect that array of San Antonio defenders will hold strong enough often enough to keep Griffin from running amok enough to swing the decision four times.
I believe that the Spurs will win the tempo battle referenced Tuesday by 48 Minutes of Hell's Timothy Varner and force the Clippers to play fast more frequently than L.A. will be able to induce the opposite, and I think that's a dangerous game for Del Negro's team. And I think that the unholy offensive run the Spurs have been on for the better part of the past five weeks — they've won 14 straight and posted an offensive rating (an estimate of how many points you score per 100 possessions) better than 110-per-100 in 12 of them — will continue against a Clippers defense that ranked 18th of 30 in defensive efficiency this season and frequently struggled to contain a nothin' special Grizzlies offense in the first round. Irrespective of the relative weakness of their opening-round opponent, I think San Antonio's the best team in this postseason, and I think they're advancing in style.
PREDICTION: Spurs in five.
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- Blake Griffin
- San Antonio
- San Antonio Spurs
- Los Angeles Clippers