As the summer wears on, with training camps and preseason play still off in (what feels like) the distant future, we turn our attention to the past. Join us as we while away a few late-summer moments recalling some of the most scintillating slams of yesteryear, the most thunderous throwdowns ever to sear themselves into our memories. This is Dunk History.
Blake Griffin became the NBA's most fearsome in-game dunker almost as soon as he officially started his career. After missing all of 2009-10 with a broken left kneecap, Griffin suited up for the Los Angeles Clippers in late October 2010 not just healthy, but possessed of elite athleticism and an attacking instinct that seemed to outstrip any projections and expectations that followed him out of the University of Oklahoma.
Griffin arrived as a readymade highlight machine, a player so talented and primed to dunk that he couldn't help but come up with a few notable dunks per night. Despite everything Griffin has added to his game over his five full seasons, he has only occasionally looked as sensational as he did in those first few months.
One night stands above all others. The Clippers welcomed the New York Knicks to Staples Center on Nov. 20, 2010, for the sort of random, non-national, late Saturday game that typically only gets watched by on-call basketball bloggers, bored children, and people preparing to have fun elsewhere. The new look Knicks, led by free-agent addition Amar'e Stoudemire and a collection of players who would later be traded for Carmelo Anthony, had started at just 5-8. Despite palpable excitement surrounding Griffin, the Clippers had started with just one win in their first 13 games.
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Stoudemire and Griffin battled all night, combining for 83 points on 28-of-48 shooting and 39 free-throw attempts as the Knicks won, 124-115. Griffin's 44 still ranks as the third-highest scoring output of his career, and Stoudemire's game-winning showing was his first spectacular outing in what was easily his most successful season in New York.
No one remembers those numbers, though, because Griffin overwhelmed them with a collection of some of the greatest dunks of his career, although highlight truthers would not necessarily list the best one as a dunk at all:
Pity poor Timofey Mozgov, now a legitimately important contributor to a team that was two wins from an NBA championship. No matter what he accomplishes in his career, though, his name will live on primarily as a verb. Just read Urban Dictionary:
1. (v) A basketball term meaning to completely posterize and dunk over another player, often by throwing down the basketball with brute force.
It was the sort of dunk that usually renders its own context irrelevant — incredible statlines fade away, final scores cease to matter, career narratives become footnotes to a single event. Griffin could have gone on to disappoint over these past few seasons and this dunk would still stand out as one of the greatest of the decade.
It has everything we want from a poster dunk, distilling the essence of a one-on-one confrontation by declaring one man clear winner and the other a crying child in need of an adult. It's a story in four or five seconds.
If this dunk were only that, though, then there wouldn't be much reason to prefer it over Griffin's similar embarrassment of Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins a season later. What makes the Mozgov jam extra special isn't the play itself, but how Amar'e reacted to it.
At this point in his career, Stoudemire was both recognized as one of the NBA's top dunkers and pretty clearly on his way out of that esteemed group. Though still very effective — he started a string of nine-straight 30-point games eight days later — Stoudemire had transitioned into excelling as a mid-range shooter and would go on to complete just 119 dunks in 78 appearances in 2010-11, the lowest per-game average of his first nine full seasons by a significant margin (and the lowest of his first 11).
However, Stoudemire was still the elder statesman of poster dunkers and absolutely in a position to acknowledge his heir apparent. He did just that at the free-throw line on the very next possession. Jump to the 1:00 mark of this video to take a look:
That wide-eyed stare says so much.
The Stoudemire everyone knew in Phoenix had made a career out of dunking on people, to the point where many still speak of him in hushed tones despite an embarrassing finish to his Knicks tenure and enough goofy stories to turn him into a running joke. Amar'e had dunked enough to know when someone was a cut above. When he acknowledged Griffin, he communicated that this 21-year-old kid was more than just an early-season fad. He was to be the NBA's next great dunker, the latest in a long line that includes names like Dr. J, Jordan, and 'Nique. He has obviously been proven correct.
Analysts and fans often assess players' legacies in real time, as if historical certainty can be willed into being without the perspective that gives it any authority. Not surprisingly, these takes are often foolish and proven wrong anywhere from a day to several seasons into the future. No matter how many stats or arguments we use to back up all the talk, they're still predictions.
The Mozgov dunk, though, required no educated guessing. Over the course of a few seconds, Griffin took his place in dunk history and received an official acknowledgment from his predecessor as a follow-up, justifying any further comparisons between him and Amar'e. Just as Allen Iverson's crossover on Michael Jordan elicited screams and swapped one era-defining player for another, it's the rare NBA moment that supplies both a visceral charge and its own broader context.
More Dunk History:
• Shawn Kemp, Alton Lister and how memory works
• Chris Webber, Charles Barkley and a poster preserved
• Young Wolf Andrew Wiggins goes straight for Rudy Gobert's neck
• Rajon Rondo leaps past Dwight Howard, ascends to All-Star status
• Vince Carter defies gravity, belief in the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest
• LeBron James rises up and Damon Jones 'gets banged on'
• Dwyane Wade welcomes Anderson Varejao to his 'Kodak moment'
• Paul George's 360 windmill causes stir on press row
• Michael Jordan, Mel Turpin and 'Was he big enough?'
• Von Wafer and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad dunk
• Dr. J 'jams the jinx,' makes Boston Garden sing different tune
• LeBron James takes flight, sends JET to crash landing
• J.R. Smith expresses himself by pulverizing Gary Neal
• Some of our friends' favorite dunks, Vol. 1: Chris Gethard, Hannibal Buress, Jensen Karp and more
• Dunk History, Season 1: Our 2014 series, collected
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