Clippers Plan To Mix & Match, Marching On With Griffin Out
LOS ANGELES – Box scores can deceive.
Looking at them the last couple weeks wouldn’t make anyone think twice about the health of Blake Griffin, who put together four straight 20-plus point performances, including a 26-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist effort in his last game before needing an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee, with the initial timetable for recovery set at four to six weeks.
To know something might be off for Griffin, it took a deeper dive into the intricacies of his game. And there were some signs.
The box scores didn’t show the couple occasions where the high-flyer, accustomed to floating with ease, struggled to get the normal burst on dunks or drives to the rim. The box scores didn’t show the leg sleeve he sported at Indiana during the Clippers’ six-game road trip late in November, or the change in his shot location the last few weeks.
If the knee was bothering him, it made sense, then, that he opted for more jump shots this month. In his first 13 games of the season, Griffin took 107 attempts from fewer than five feet out and 68 jumpers from between 15 and 29 feet out. In his last 13 games, he took 90 attempts from fewer than five feet out and 102 jumpers from 15 to 29 feet out.
What the box score did show was the two missed games, once in Brooklyn at the end of November and again in New Orleans on Dec. 10, the latter with a sore knee listed as the cause. That’s when the issue became clear.
“Adversity is adversity,” said head coach Doc Rivers. “It’s just part of life. We all have adversity in life, and our team has it. You just get through it.”
The Clippers now have at least a few weeks where they’ll need to get through it, following Griffin’s successful procedure. Rivers said he texted back and forth with Griffin on Tuesday after the surgery, and Rivers was told everything went great.
It also went great that night for the Clippers, whose first test since Griffin’s procedure ended in success.
They took care of business against the Nuggets, pick-and-rolling their way with Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan and shooting their way with J.J. Redick to 119 points and a 17-point win.
That’s the formula they’ll need going forward, though they know it won’t always be as easy as it seemed Tuesday through this stretch. They can hope to draw on their experience without Griffin last year, but they also know the 30-15 record they amassed when Griffin missed 45 straight games from injuries in the 2015-16 season doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll do the same again this year.
“I don’t live in last year,” Rivers said. “If we can do what we did last year, we’d take it right now, but we can’t do that. I think this team is deeper than last year, but this team has not proven that we can play an extended period of time without Blake. So, that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
So far, so good, despite losing an integral part of the offense. Without the All-Star forward, the Clippers will try to spread the floor more, leaving room for Jordan to roll, draw the defense in, and get Redick and the rest of the Clippers’ shooters going from deep.
As Paul explained, they lose the ability to dump it to the elbow and let Griffin go to work.
“Usually when we need a bucket or things are slow a little bit, we always play through Blake,” Paul said. “Just the confidence that he gives us down the stretch, we have our two-man game, and just his presence of mind gives everybody a comfort level.”
Paul said he doesn’t feel any added pressure now. But without Griffin, the Clippers will need more of the performances they got from their mainstays Tuesday night, when Paul amassed 16 points, 15 assists and eight rebounds, Redick knocked down seven 3-pointers on his way to a team-high 27 points and Jordan posted 13 points and 13 rebounds.
And, most importantly, there were longer stretches and flashes of defensive adeptness. Jordan played with the same type of energy and intensity as he did last year when Griffin was out, throwing down alley-oops and protecting the paint. Last season, Jordan recorded 10 straight double-doubles from Dec. 26-Jan. 21, while averaging 13.8 points and 15.1 rebounds in January.
Rivers knows this is a new group, so last year doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but the Clippers actually feel more prepared to handle an absence this season than in prior years.
“The great players are a nice blanket for guys,” Rivers said. “When you take that blanket away, now you have to play. I think our guys will be ready, I will say that.”
The fifth starter could change based on matchups. On Tuesday, Rivers went with Paul Pierce, the veteran who played the majority of the time last season when Griffin was down.
But Rivers also has Alan Anderson, Brandon Bass, Wesley Johnson, Raymond Felton and Austin Rivers, who started when Griffin was out earlier this season in New Orleans, at his disposal. Doc elected to go with Pierce against a bigger Denver frontcourt, but could choose Austin against smaller, quicker small forwards.
Austin said he expects the Clippers to try to run the floor more to create offense with Griffin’s post presence unavailable, and if he does earn some starts, he’s learned from past experiences he doesn’t want to change the way he plays.
“When you try to fit in with a lineup and try to not step on anybody’s toes, you end up not doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” Austin said. “When you just go in there like, ‘Man, I don’t care who I’m playing with, I’m just going to be who I am, aggressive on both ends,’ you end up playing better.”
Regardless of the fifth starter, Paul said the Clippers still go into every night expecting to win.
With a four-to-six-week timetable for recovery, that means the Clippers will need that mindset while playing shorthanded for roughly the next 15 to 20 games.
“It’s always tough when your best player goes down,” Austin said. “But you just have to find a way.”