Of everything I asked Breen, the question that seemed to resonate most was about Blake Griffin. Why is one of the top young players, who by all accounts is a hard-working and likeable marvel of athleticism, so oft criticized? Why is it as commonplace to hear Charles Barkley and numerous other national media members and analysts take seemingly unprovoked shots at Griffin?
“It drives me crazy,” said Breen, who has called the past nine NBA Finals for ABC. “The guy, he puts up incredible numbers. He’s helped the team win a lot of games, more than the franchise has ever won. Does he have some flaws in his game? Absolutely, but it’s not like he’s not working at it. He’s got a great work ethic. There have been very few, if any, perfect players, and I think it’s unfair that he gets that.”
Through 10 games, Griffin has been as close to “perfect” as any time in his career. He has done everything for a Clippers team that has started 7-3 and won four games in a row. In three wins last week, he averaged 25.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and shot 56.4 percent. That sounds like a surefire player of the week award in the Western Conference.
On Saturday, even after a frightening moment where Griffin came down awkwardly and reached for the back of his left foot in the third quarter, he returned to help pull the Clippers out of the doldrums against a Brooklyn team missing four-fifths of its starting lineup.
Griffin said his injured foot was feeling better after the game. It looked better immediately after he returned. While he was in the locker room, J.J. Redick, who had a season-high tying 26 points, and Byron Mullens connected on back-to-back 3-pointers to help get the Clippers within five points. He sprinted out of the player’s tunnel shortly after that, the crowd responded accordingly.
Seconds later he was rejecting a layup by Mason Plumlee and jetting up the left side of the floor for a 3-point play to tie the game. He’d catch a lob later, and score 12 of his 30 points after coming back.
After the game he was asked if he felt like his return gave the team, or the crowd, a lift. “I would love to say, ‘yes,’” Griffin said. “But J.J. hit a shot while I was sitting there and Byron hit a shot and we got some stops and kind of kept that going. They did a good job before I was back.”
That sounds like a typical Griffin response. He accepts praise about as well as he accepts failure.
Griffin was hobbled in the final two games of the Playoffs a year ago, and had to let be eliminated in rousing fashion by the Memphis Grizzlies for months over the summer. The early stages of the 2013-14 season have been a typical Griffin response as well. He’s taken over.
He’s defended better, shot free throws more consistently, and has looked more than ever like one of the most complete offensive players in the NBA. During the preseason, Griffin said he wanted to help take the burden away from Chris Paul as a go-to scorer when the game’s on the line. He did that in Miami, scoring eight points in the final three minutes, and in Houston, scoring two baskets in the fourth quarter to put the game away, including a step-through layup around Dwight Howard. On Saturday, with Paul struggling from the field, Griffin, and Redick, provided the offensive lift.
“Blake was aggressive,” Paul said. “He was running, and-ones, he got us in the bonus. You know, J.J. also. He was lights out making shots. It’s a good win for us and we’ve got to keep it going. And [Griffin], we’re going to keep feeding him until somebody stops him.”
There is likely nothing Griffin can do to silence the critics. He’s had at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in seven of the last nine games. He’s got 97 of those in his career. If the hypercriticism was going to halt, it would have. But you don’t need to ask Griffin or Barkley or Breen if that matters, we already know the answer.