GRIFFIN TAKES ON CHALLENGE OF GUARDING JAMES
MIAMI – Blake Griffin is not one to shy away from challenges.
On Thursday night with the Clippers undermanned and injured at the small forward position, Griffin told Head Coach Doc Rivers he would slide over to guard superstar and four-time MVP LeBron James. In the previous five meetings between arguably two of the most athletic front-court players in league history, they matched up sparingly, usually when a pick-and-roll was switched or a specific possession called for it.
This time it was for extended segments of the final three quarters.
“We were stuck tonight,” Rivers said. “We were so small. [Jared Dudley] is struggling with his knee right now and we were really trying to give him five-minute stretches and we really didn’t have a lot of places to go.”
Dudley started the game on James and with Matt Barnes out due to a right thigh contusion Rivers first used 6-foot-4 Willie Green in reserve of Dudley. Green was whistled for three fouls in the first quarter as James used his 260-pound frame to muscle him in the post. The Clippers retreated to the bench after a timeout in the second quarter when the switch to Griffin was made.
“Blake took the call and said, ‘I’ll take LeBron,’” Rivers said. “I thought he was phenomenal at it; that takes a lot out of him, too.”
Griffin said: “I enjoy the challenge and I know I can. It’s just a matter of stepping up and doing it. Sometimes it’s not great for a matchup to put another guy on another guy, but whatever’s best for the team.”
Griffin halted James on two straight possessions in the second quarter, drawing an offensive foul when he beat James to a spot on the right block and forcing a wild miss on James’ next touch when he cut off his driving lane. There were times when Griffin got beat off the dribble and other times when the help defense did not arrive to cover a misstep. But, in all, Rivers said, “He defended LeBron the best of all of our guys.”
Barnes, who has been tasked with guarding James several times before including twice with the Clippers last season, knows what kind of physical toll it takes to matchup with the Heat star and said he thought Griffin is one of the rare players in the league who has the physical attributes to challenge James.
“Blake’s one guy you could say is big enough and strong enough and athletic enough to stay with him and body him. I thought he did a great job,” Barnes said. “He stayed active. You’ve got to give him room and understand that if he makes a few jumpers you’ve got to be okay with that. His game is putting his head down and getting to the basket.”
James finished with 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting, but had just 10 points and went 3-for-9 after the first quarter. Griffin’s defense certainly helped, but in the larger scope it may be a further sign of Griffin’s evolution as an all-around player. On a night when he went 11-for-15 and scored 27 points with 14 rebounds. It was defense that seemingly most observers wanted to talk about after the game.
Griffin was asked three questions about how he felt the matchup went and in Rivers’ less than five-minute media conference more than a minute was spent talking about how Griffin impacted the game and could impact the Clippers moving forward.
Asked if Griffin can be the kind of perimeter defender that can step out and guard high-scoring forwards around the league, Rivers responded: “I believed that before the season and I believe it more now.”
Whether he is asked to guard James again in February when the teams meet again at Staples Center or Kevin Durant a week from now or Carmelo Anthony, only time will tell.
But one thing is certain, Griffin will embrace the challenge. Just like everything else.