With each thundering dunk he's thrown down and every rebound he's violently snatched out of the air, Blake Griffin(notes) has won over a nation of fans who consider him one of the most exciting players to join the NBA in years. In three short months, the Los Angeles Clippers rookie has shown he's well on his way to becoming one of the league's stars.
In the process, Griffin also has become something else – a target for many opponents who have grown weary of his limitless energy and flyover act.
In the closing seconds of the Clippers' victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, Lamar Odom(notes) grabbed Griffin by the jersey and tried to yank him off the court, igniting a brief scrum that led to the ejection of four players. Odom's complaint: Blake was battling too hard for a rebound – or, in Odom's words, delivering a "ram in the back" – in a game that had already been decided.
Griffin didn't retaliate, throwing up his hands in defense and trying to back away from Odom. But his teammates – in particular, veteran point guard Baron Davis(notes) – have grown increasingly frustrated with the perceived "cheap shots" the young forward has been subject to from opponents. In an interview with Yahoo! Sports on Friday, Davis said it was time for the Clippers to start protecting Griffin. He made good on his vow, pushing Odom and jawing at the Lakers forward during the scrum.
The one thing Davis doesn't want to happen is for the powerful Griffin to soften his game.
"A dunk takes the steam out of people, especially when it's a big guy," Davis told Y! Sports. "So when you're dunking on people three to four times in a game, it just deflates you. It deflates your interior defense. The only retaliation is to cheap-shot somebody.
"I think it's unfair because this kid is … not being brash or talking [expletive] to people. The only other way to protect yourself as a player playing against him is to cheap-shot him. So you see people jumping in his way. We throw lobs and people undercut him. It's unfair."
Anyone who watched Griffin at the University of Oklahoma knew how aggressive he played. If the NBA had forgotten that after a broken left kneecap forced Griffin to miss all of his first season with the Clippers, he served a powerful reminder when he jammed a one-handed alley-oop dunk over the Portland Trail Blazers' Nicolas Batum(notes) for his first official basket in the league. Less than two minutes later, Griffin had the crowd abuzz again by throwing down a put-back jam.
"Blake Griffin is the most ferocious dunker in the game today," said Blazers center Marcus Camby(notes), who has long reigned as one of the league's top interior defenders. "That honor used to belong to Dwight Howard(notes). But the way Blake dunks and the way he soars almost above the rim makes it a highlight every time.
"What's remarkable is, with his knee injury, you would have thought he would have lost inches or a step off his vertical. But from playing against him before he got hurt when I was with the Clippers to seeing him now up close and personal, he may have gotten better and is jumping higher than before."
Griffin scored 44 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a loss to the New York Knicks on Nov. 15. But what garnered more attention was Griffin stealing the show from Knicks star Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) with a pair of vicious dunks over Timofey Mozgov and Danilo Gallinari(notes). Highlights of the plays immediately went viral on YouTube, and the league was served notice: Challenge this 21-year-old and you run the risk of being embarrassed.
It was after that game that Griffin noticed opposing teams becoming more physical with him.
"But even our third game against Dallas, I noticed they didn't want to give up any dunks or anything like that," he said. "There has been some [physicality] that has been hard, but I can't say if [the players] crossed the line or not. I don't know their intentions."
One NBA coach said he has told his players they must get physical with Griffin, including him on a short list of opponents that includes a few of the game's other notable dunkers including Kobe Bryant(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes) and Stoudemire. At 6-foot-10, 250 pounds, Griffin is a mass of muscle, athleticism and fury.
"There is no way to defend him unless you come with three or four guys," Golden State Warriors guard Monta Ellis(notes) said. "You can't stop him from the highlights. He's going to do it. If you're not there five steps ahead, than you can hang it up."
Whether it's Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol(notes) pushing him during a dunk attempt, Blazers point guard Andre Miller(notes) tackling him, the Lakers' Ron Artest(notes) hitting him in the face or several other opponents undercutting him during alley-oops, Griffin hasn't retaliated. About the most he's done is stare down someone like he did Miami Heat point guard Mario Chalmers(notes) after a dunk last Wednesday.
Griffin credits his father, Tommy, an accomplished Oklahoma high school coach, for teaching him that lesson.
"When I was in high school he told me, 'Let your game do the talking. You don't have to have to go out and try to rough them up or anything. For one, you might have to sit out the next game,' "Griffin said. "It kind of lets people know that they've gotten to you.
"Sometimes you don't want to turn and walk away because they might think, 'Maybe we can bump this guy or maybe we can do this, retaliate or do this or that.' But for the most part you kind of have to pick and choose your spots. Sticking up for a teammate, I don't mind doing that. For myself, sometimes it's better to just walk away."
Kenyon Martin(notes), the Denver Nuggets' bruising forward, has long been one of Griffin's favorite players, so it's no surprise that his own game carries such ferocity. As a kid, Griffin marveled at the force K-Mart played with when he starred at the University of Cincinnati.
For Martin, however, there's one big difference in Griffin's game from his: "He can jump way higher than me."
Martin also said he wasn't targeted the way Griffin has been because opposing players knew he would retaliate if someone tried to cheap-shot him. For now, Davis has taken on the role of Griffin's bodyguard.
"I just started threatening people," Davis said. "It's not fair. He's my teammate. As a team we're going to protect him.
"Every game somebody tries to do something to him: undercut him, picking on him. You got to think, he's still a rookie. People are going to try to challenge him and do all kinds of stuff like that. But we are not going to let that happen to him.
"Whether I got to get kicked out of a game, that's not how it should be. But I'm a little old-school, so I am going to protect my teammates at all costs."
Griffin has appreciated the support.
"Whenever you feel like your teammates got your back, it's always encouraging," he said. "It makes you feel like you got your team behind you. A guy like Baron, when he says something, it goes a little bit farther because people have respect for him and know he's been doing this for a long time."
Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro hasn't told his players to be careful about where they throw their lob passes to Griffin. He also thinks Griffin has his own way of exacting revenge when opponents try to get physical with him.
"The person handling him is going to be sorer the next day than he is," Del Negro said. "He's a physical kid. He's strong. He's athletic. He's going to attack the rim. That's his DNA. That's how he plays. That's what makes him special."
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