GRIFFIN & PAUL SET TONE FROM OPENING TIP
LOS ANGELES – With smoke from a pregame laser show still lingering inside Staples Center and the 90-second countdown to tipoff ticking, Blake Griffin made his way down the scorer’s table towards center court.
He paused briefly before wiping his feet on an adhesive mat on the floor where player’s customarily check into the game and stared into the mishmash of red, blue, purple and gold that filled the arena bowl. The look lasted a second or two. He nodded, continued wiping his feet and pounded his right fist against the red padding atop the table.
Griffin was locked in. Chris Paul was, too.
It may be easy to suggest now that the 109-95 victory over the Lakers is complete, but it seemed as though Griffin and Paul were not going to let a chance to clinch the Pacific Division in front of their home crowd be whisked away.
“I think me and Blake set the tone,” Paul said. “We talked about it after the game, when myself along with Blake comes out aggressive like that on both ends of the court, it makes us a lot tougher to beat.”
On Sunday with Griffin and Paul putting together one of their best combined games in nearly two years together, the Clippers were near impossible to beat.
Griffin scored 24 points with 12 rebounds and five assists. Paul added 24 points of his own to go along with 12 assists, five rebounds and three steals. They were on the floor together for 37 minutes and owned each second.
“You’re a different team when your top players do that,” Clippers head coach VInny Del Negro said. “Today, the ball was moving and we got some easy ones. Blake was diving. I thought he was aggressive and Chris was finding him.”
The pick-and-roll game worked well with Paul coming around Griffin screens to nail jumpers against a defense that too often sagged. In the fourth quarter with the game still very much in the balance, Paul came around a Griffin screen for a double-clutch, one-handed runner to make it 92-80.
And Griffin scored nine points in the final 5:05, including a pair of free throws and a follow dunk and a 3-pointer in consecutive possessions that perhaps sealed the game, sending the bipartisan crowd into a frenzy.
The shot from distance, which came at the shot clock buzzer, led to a Lakers timeout and elicited a giant grin from Griffin as he made his way back to the bench.
“The thing that I was laughing about is that I had missed every single shot before then,” Griffin said. “Guys were on the bench telling me, ‘Keep shooting it, keep shooting it. We want you to take that shot. We see you every day before practice. Keep shooting it.’ I’m like, ‘Man, you guys are crazy.’”
Griffin finished 8-for-18 from the field with most of his shots coming inside the paint on jump hooks, dunks and layups. But Griffin’s scoring was merely the start of his impact Sunday. He defended Gasol, had four of the Clippers 16 offensive rebounds, found open shooters and cutters out of the post and heeded pleas from Del Negro to run the floor.
Paul was a major part of that, too. He had three turnovers and just one after halftime and, according to Del Negro, “picked his spots” as a scorer and distributor. He also spearheaded a defensive effort that held the Lakers to 43.4% shooting, scrambling to shooters like Steve Blake after digging down in the post.
Paul would say it was about defense initiating everything, and it certainly did. But it was also about the mindset of the Clippers’ two superstars.
“I think whenever those two guys are aggressive it opens up the floor,” said Jamal Crawford, who scored 20 points, a league high for players off the bench.
Crawford had space to dance with the ball, making six of his 13 shots and extending his streak of free throw perfection to 39 in a row. Caron Butler had 14 points. DeAndre Jordan had 13 rebounds. And Matt Barnes went 5-for-6 with mostly open looks from the perimeter.
“That’s how we’re supposed to play,” Jordan said. “As long as we bring that type of energy from the jump ball to the end of the game, we’ll be okay.”
On Sunday, that type of energy started well before tipoff. You could see it Griffin’s eyes.