There was 1:25 left in the Brooklyn Nets’ season when Blake Griffin left the court for the last time, exiting to an ovation from the Barclays Center crowd after fouling out in overtime of the 115-111 Game 7 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Griffin had put up a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds, but this went beyond the boxscore. This was about banging bodies with Giannis Antetokounmpo for 40 minutes that night and throughout the series, for floor burns and charges taken over three months since Griffin jumped to Brooklyn in the middle of the season.
“I didn’t really hear it,” said Griffin. “I was just kind of frustrated. But from everything I heard just walking around the city and people reaching out, I always appreciate when people appreciate how hard you play and not just the points you score or a dunk. I always felt like that was a hole this team needed to fill. I felt like that was kind of my role.”
That night brought the end to a transitional season for Griffin — “so long and so weird,” he said — in which he spent a month out of game action while winding down in Detroit and then ramping back up in Brooklyn.
In the immediate aftermath, he tuned the game out for a bit — didn’t even watch the rest of the playoffs for a while — checked in with Sean Marks over lunch, then headed back to Los Angeles to decompress around family and backburner the question of his future for a spell.
He thought about thinking about other options, hearing out other teams, before realizing he already knew he wanted to return to the Nets, a decision he’s referred to as a “no-brainer.” With that, and with others like James Harden and LaMarcus Aldridge who also joined the Nets with the season in progress last year in Brooklyn for the start of things, he gets to begin the season on firmer ground with an eye toward a more stable year.
“Anytime you’re coming into a familiar situation you have a little more confidence, you can relax about the other things and just focus on basketball and what’s important,” said Griffin. “That’s always good for me.”
With that, maybe asserting himself a little bit more in a leadership role. There’s little lacking in Griffin’s resume as he heads into his 12th NBA season — five All-NBA honors and six All-Star Games, a career scoring average of 20.9 points per game that’s 13th among active players, a 49.5 shooting percentage, and 8.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.
In Brooklyn though, he was still the new guy in the room last season.
“When you first get to a team it’s really weird, you don’t feel like you’ve earned the right to say anything, no matter how long you’ve played or what you’ve done,” said Griffin. “I think you always have to earn guys’ respect and earn guys’ trust in a teammate setting. For me, it’s about trying to help take a little bit of the leadership off Kevin (Durant) — not away from, but off of — Kevin and James (Harden), because those guys speak all the time. Same with Steve (Nash). Sometimes it’s nice to hear it from other people. Sometimes it might be my turn to step up and get on us and get guys going. That’s kind of my goal for this season — pick your spots and find out where you can help contribute.”
The role he embraced last year was as a rugged glue-guy who utilized the versatile offensive skill set he’d developed over the years to seamlessly blend into different frontcourt combinations. Over the second half of his career, after never averaging even one 3-point attempt per game over his first six seasons, Griffin has brought his game beyond the arc. His 38.3 percentage on 3.1 attempts per game while with the Nets last season was the highest of this stage of his career. And he’s always been able to distribute, averaging at least 4.9 assists for a five-season stretch through 2018-19.
Over his 26 games with the Nets, Griffin averaged 10.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 21.5 minutes per game, shooting 49.2 percent overall. The Nets were plus 130 in his 560 minutes on the floor, a per-minute rate of plus .23 that was third on the team behind Nic Claxton and Durant.
Sliding between power forward and center while mostly coming off the bench over his first six weeks, Griffin moved into the starting center role with six games left in the regular season and held it through 12 playoff games.
That was partly a result of Aldridge’s sudden retirement in mid-April, but the veteran center is back, and the Nets have added Paul Millsap as well. The frontcourt mix that was thin at times last season — and looked so for much of the summer as well — got more crowded, but Griffin welcomes the reinforcements.
“Everybody’s here for a common goal,” said Griffin. “Sometimes in certain situations you have to sacrifice certain things. When I came here in March, I didn’t know exactly how many minutes were going to go around. But that was a chance I was willing to take. A lot of times you just gamble on yourself a little bit and say, ‘I know how to play basketball and I’ll earn the minutes if I deserve the minutes.’ I think that’s the common idea with all of us. It’s going to be by committee.”
That common goal is the NBA championship that has eluded Griffin and teammates such as Aldridge, Harden, and Millsap through All-Star careers.
“I think we’re all sort of in the same boat here,” said Griffin. “We all, for the most part, obviously Kevin and Ky have won, but most of us have had some individual success but never won a championship. Some more than others, James obviously. I think everybody’s coming together for this common goal says a lot. That’s the same idea. That’s really the only goal that we have. The only agenda we have is to win a championship.”