Blake Griffin

LOS ANGELES – Blake Griffin jogged back to the bench late in Wednesday’s transcendent performance against the Miami Heat imploring his teammates that the Clippers still had “work” to do.

Griffin had just spun off LeBron James for an alley-oop where Griffin caught the ball, touched his wrists to the rim and flicked the ball down with a ferocity usually reserved for Greek mythology.  

It brought the Clippers, playing without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick, to within two points of the lead after trailing by as many as 17 in the second half. And as Griffin flung himself off the rim, he was already thinking about the next play, the next move in an exhausting chess match between the shorthanded Clippers and the defending champions.

Griffin played 42 minutes and finished with 43 points, 15 rebounds and six assists in a game the Clippers eventually lost 116-112. But in a time of year when moral victories are usually reserved for teams who are not eyeing a lengthy postseason run, Wednesday night was different.

The Clippers (34-18) were gutty and excitable and when the Heat knocked them back with a nearly flawless first quarter, the Clippers never relented. In what has been an ongoing theme the last month and a half, they followed Griffin’s lead.  

“He’s our go to,” Matt Barnes said. “Chris [Paul] knows that. Everybody knows that. I think he’s just under so much scrutiny out here when people forget he’s 24 [years old]. He’s still a baby. He’s growing game-by-game and he’s one of our leaders and he does a good job at being a leader.”

It’s something Griffin has done on the fly. He has always set an example with his work ethic. Jamal Crawford, who had 31 points in 46 minutes Wednesday, tweeted an image of Griffin putting in a full workout just hours after the team played a game in Detroit two weeks ago. And after arriving back in Los Angeles at 2 a.m. following Monday’s loss in Denver, Griffin was one of the first people at the team’s facility on Tuesday.

Those tireless workouts have become as commonplace for Griffin as any acrobatic dunk. But since Paul went down with a shoulder injury a month ago, Griffin has stepped up as a vocal leader.

“Chris is one of our most vocal guys and a guy who is constantly talking on the court and getting us into things, so anytime you lose a guy like that it changes the dynamic of your team,” Griffin said. “I’ve tried to be a little bit more aggressive as far as the vocal leadership and trying to say things. I remember I went to Jamal during the Dallas game, after [Paul] went out and we kind of looked at each other and we both kind of understood that we both had to pick it up and we both had to be a little bit more aggressive and pick up the slack a little bit.”

Griffin has done more than picked up the slack. He’s been a Most Valuable Player candidate. Only three times in the last seven years has a player put up the gaudy statistics he had Wednesday. He’s done it twice in that span.

Since Jan. 4, the Clippers have gone 11-6. Paul has missed all 17 games. Shooting guard J.J. Redick has not played in four. Yet Griffin has averaged 27.0 points per game. He’s scored at least 25 in five straight. He’s topped 36 in the last two. He’s had five 20-point, 10-rebound games, shot 54.4 percent from the floor, tallied four and a half assists and done virtually everything for the Clippers.

“I’m just going to put it out there,” Crawford said. “Blake [Griffin] is playing at an MVP level. Honestly, if you look at it I know [Kevin] Durant gets a lot of attention; and it’s as well deserved as LeBron [James], obviously… LaMarcus [Aldridge]. But [Blake Griffin] is playing just as good as anybody in the NBA. To accept the leadership [role] like he has, I think it’s almost been a blessing to be kind of under-manned; because he’s really stepped up his growth and his leadership, and he’s just been amazing.”

Dwyane Wade echoed Crawford’s comments. “With Chris [Paul] being out, Blake has taken it upon himself to be the leader of this team,” Wade said. “He’s really putting his game together, playing a lot of minutes, getting the ball a lot, having to do a lot, and he’s really stepping up.”

Against Miami, Griffin was arguably at his best. He had a number of enthralling dunks, including a right-handed slam down the center of the lane off a dish from Crawford where his nose met the rim, an alley-oop from Darren Collison where he plucked the pass from what seemed like the rafters, and the spin lob from Crawford in the fourth quarter.

But the aerial show was merely part of Griffin’s game Wednesday, and frankly, all season. He nailed a 3-pointer in the final seconds to bring the Clippers within three and narrowly missed another one that would have made it 116-115. He guarded LeBron James at times, a strategy he and Clippers assistant coach Tyronn Lue devised at shootaround. He was relentless on the offensive glass, tapping in his own misses on multiple occasions.

It was the kind of do-it-all performance in front of a national audience and celebrity-filled arena that even in a loss snatches the consciousness of the basketball world. In a lot of ways it was like November 2010 when he burst on the scene with 44 points, 15 boards, seven assists and a Timofey Mozgov poster against the Knicks as a rookie. Only this time Griffin was already a household name and a four-time All-Star. This time it was sign he may be ascending to another level, one only James and a handful of others have reached thus far.