LOS ANGELES – For all the lob dunks and high-wire athleticism, for that one miraculous night in Memphis, the lasting picture of Blake Griffin in his first NBA playoffs came midway through a long Saturday afternoon. His Los Angeles Clippers were on the run, in the midst of surrendering 24 consecutive points to the San Antonio Spurs, along with whatever hope they had of making this Western Conference semifinal a legitimate series. Knocked to the ground near L.A.'s basket, Griffin pushed himself to his knees and looked up at an official for a call that would never come, his face showing both disappointment and resignation.
These are the moments Griffin needs to carry with him into this summer, the lessons he must learn. The Spurs have overwhelmed the Clippers, pushing them within a Sunday evening loss of being swept, and Griffin has come to marvel at the stoicism of San Antonio's great forward, Tim Duncan. Griffin looks into Duncan's eyes and nothing ever changes. Down 24, up 12, Duncan looks only at the next play.
"It's tough to get him flustered," Griffin said, "no matter what just happened."
The Clippers can only hope Griffin learns from this. He's already cut out some of the histrionics from the first round when the Memphis Grizzlies mocked him for flopping all over the court and crying at every whistle that didn't go his way. But as Griffin learns to restrain his emotions, he must also expand his game.
Nothing less than the Clippers' future depends on Griffin returning next season with a more versatile, more complete, skill set. Chris Paul limped through another loss to the Spurs, his injured hip contributing to another dozen missed shots. "We have to do a better job of helping him," Griffin said afterward, and that includes beyond the remainder of this series.
Paul's contract ends after next season, and every decision the Clippers make – how they fill out their roster, whether they retain coach Vinny Del Negro – is weighed by whether it will help ensure Paul re-signs. Griffin could become the biggest reason Paul stays – or, perhaps, one of the reasons he leaves.
The Clippers have no choice but to offer Griffin a max-level contract extension this summer. His potential, his Hollywood appeal, will demand it. But with that money comes responsibility. The Clippers need Griffin to carry them when Paul can't. On those nights when Paul has been anything than less than great, the Clippers have been lost.
Paul can't carry this burden alone, especially as he gets older. Few of the greats can. LeBron James skipped off to Miami looking for help. Paul came to the Clippers after bailing on the New Orleans Hornets, forcing a trade when he realized he'd never win a championship with them. He'll make the Clippers also sweat, if needed. Advancing to the second round of the playoffs is a nice start, but Paul's already done that. He sets his bar a few rungs higher, and his mood after Game 3 showed as much.
"Devastating" was how Paul described the Clippers' collapse. They'd led by 24 early as Griffin made 10 of his first 12 shots. Griffin would go on to deliver his best performance of these playoffs with 28 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks. Yet as he faded in the third quarter, so did the Clippers.
Griffin is playing on a sore knee, but scouts also point to another flaw that's limiting his impact: Rarely do his mechanics look the same on consecutive shots. Just as easily as his jumper fell in the first half, it deserted him in the second. This is correctable – there was a time when Tony Parker couldn't shoot – but it will come only with work, and that's why this summer looms as the most important of Griffin's young career.
Never has Griffin had a regular offseason to shape his game. His first year in the NBA was wiped out after he injured his knee early in the preseason. The Clippers handled him cautiously the following offseason and the lockout prevented him from working with coaches last summer. He's a candidate to make the final cut for Team USA at this summer's London Olympics, but USA Basketball officials wonder: Will he be content to work hard in practice with little guarantee of playing time?
A year ago, the Clippers welcomed Griffin's air show and nightly highlights. Jumping over a car works well when the prime objective is to sell tickets and sponsorships. Yet, Paul's arrival has changed the expectations for the franchise and Griffin himself. Paul has blamed only himself for his team's struggles, but the Clippers likely weren't winning this series against the deeper, more experienced Spurs even if he were healthy. The goal now is to build off this season's success.
"I don’t care how much you’re up or down, you have to keep fighting," Del Negro said, "and take every minute out there as a learning experience."
Another lesson could await the Clippers when they return to the Staples Center on Sunday night, needing a win to prolong their season. The real test for Griffin begins when it ends.
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