After trading All-Star point guard and primary playmaker Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets in a blockbuster deal this summer, the Los Angeles Clippers planted their flag. They committed as much money as possible, for as long as possible, to Blake Griffin, banking on the supremely talented but oft-injured power forward to serve as the linchpin of the team for the next half-decade.
Well, we’re only four games in, but that’s looked like a pretty freaking good decision so far.
With 5.9 seconds left in a nip-and-tuck battle with the Portland Trail Blazers that had featured seven ties and 16 lead changes, the Clippers trailed by two and needed a bucket. So they turned to the guy they just gave $173 million to answer the bell, and he delivered the knockout blow:
After Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari inbounded the ball to point guard Patrick Beverley, Griffin made his way from the right block to the foul line, with Blazers defender Al-Farouq Aminu in hot pursuit. Griffin caught the ball at the top of the key, dribbled to his left around a screen from Beverley, and found enough daylight to raise up from beyond the arc. He elevated with just over one second left on the clock, letting it fly from the left wing, and splashed through the long ball with no time remaining, giving the Clippers a thrilling 104-103 road win in a tough environment in Portland.
Just the way head coach Doc Rivers drew it up? Well, maybe not exactly:
Blake in the walk off interview said the call was for him to attack the basket but they defended it well. https://t.co/QdaZaS1SI6
— Haralabos Voulgaris (@haralabob) October 27, 2017
But the Clips will damn sure live with the result.
The buzzer-beating game-winner capped a sensational closing kick from Griffin. He scored 16 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, working over an array of Blazer defenders — Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis, you name it — with his back to the basket, or facing up and driving to the paint, and finally from beyond the arc. Every time the Clippers needed a bucket, they went to Griffin, and he came through, scoring L.A.’s last nine points over the final 4:45 to hold Portland off.
The Blazers will likely kick themselves here. They stormed back from a 10-point early second half deficit behind a huge 14-point third quarter from star point guard Damian Lillard, and took a 94-91 lead on a 3-pointer by C.J. McCollum with seven minutes to go in regulation. But a stepback 3 by Austin Rivers gave the Clips back the lead just over a minute later, and Griffin’s repeated bull rushes to the front of the rim kept L.A. in front.
Portland regained the lead when Nurkic shook DeAndre Jordan for a short leaner that made it 100-99 with 1:20 to go. Griffin answered with another drive for a tough finish to go back on top, only for McCollum to redeem a botched Aminu-Harkless lob by picking up the loose ball and canning a midrange jumper to take a 102-101 edge with 44.1 seconds to go.
After a lengthy video review to see if a 3-point try by Gallinari hit the front of the rim (it did) or should have triggered a shot-clock violation (it shouldn’t have), the Clippers sought an answer. The Blazers walled off Griffin’s drive, forcing him to dump the ball off and triggering a swing around the perimeter that ended with the ball in the hands of Austin Rivers. And the hands of Austin Rivers would end up in serious, serious pain:
The shooting guard dislocated the pinky finger on his right hand on that drive. Worse yet, he got called for an offensive foul for bowling over a late-sliding Lillard, giving Portland back possession with six seconds to go. The Clippers had to foul to extend the game, sending McCollum to the line. C.J. led the league in free-throw shooting last season, and entered Thursday having knocked down 91.7 percent of his freebies this season, but he had also just missed one after being fouled shooting a 3 with 2:57 left. He missed the front end of this trip, too.
McCollum on costly missed FT: "Felt good coming off. But I’ve got to knock them down, especially late in the game under 5 minutes."
— Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman) October 27, 2017
He made the second, keeping the lead at two and giving the Clippers one last chance. Blake took it, and made the most of it, continuing his stellar run to start the season.
Griffin is now averaging 26.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, shooting 53.6 percent from the field and a stunning 43.5 percent from 3-point land on nearly six attempts per game, a testament to how hard he’s worked to add that element to his game over the years and to just how formidable a force it makes him at the controls of the Clippers’ offense. The Clips have been 14.4 points per 100 possessions better with Griffin on the floor than off it so far, and have ridden his combination of explosive athleticism, elite playmaking and newfound knockdown shooting to a 4-0 start to the 2017-18 campaign; they’re one of just two undefeated teams left standing, alongside the Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs. (Naturally.)
It’s probably worth pumping the brakes a little bit on the Clips. Two of their wins have come over the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns, they were one shot away from falling in Portland and, lest we forget, we’ve seen Clipper teams start out hot before petering out later. For now, though, they’re scoring, they’re defending, and they’re winning, thanks in large part to Griffin, who’s been turning in work as impressive as any player outside of Milwaukee in the early going, and who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in Oregon on Thursday.
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