The stat line looked flat. The play, for the most part, seemed a bit rusty. And there wasn’t much going on in either the scoring or rebounding department. But the Los Angeles Clippers don’t mind these little victories.
They’re just glad their enforcer is back. Blake Griffin looked out of sorts during the 25 minutes he played Sunday against the Washington Wizards.
But that’s expected considering all of the time he’s missed. Having him on the floor would have been just enough of a motivation for his Clippers mates to hold off the 10th-seeded Eastern Conference Wizards to claim a 114-109 win at Staples Center. Griffin’s line for the game: 6 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. Nothing special to write home to mamma about.
It’s a far cry from Griffin’s usual production of 23 points and eight rebounds a game he was putting up before he became sidelined. But, hey, his presence is not about the regular season. The season is almost over. Griffin’s return is about the postseason, the real season.
The Clippers have locked up the No. 4 seed, which is pretty outstanding in itself when you consider Los Angeles missed their All-Star cog for most of the season. It had to take the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs to have historical seasons to grab the top two spots, while the Oklahoma City Thunder, behind their two superstars-Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, have snagged the No. 3 slot in the Western Conference.
What the Clippers have done to grab the fourth seed in a tough Western Conference is nothing short of remarkable. It’s hard to envision the Warriors, Spurs or the Thunder being in the top four spots without one of their superstars taking the floor every night.
Can you imagine how the Warriors’ season would play out if Steph Curry or Draymond Green went down and missed a major portion of the season? Likewise for the Spurs if LaMarcus Aldridge or Kawhi Leonard were sidelined. More than anything, what the Clippers’ record reflect more than anything is the solid coaching job Doc Rivers has done.
The Clippers are a good team with Griffin out of the lineup. With him on the floor, the Clippers become legitimate title contenders. Sure, there are plenty of people who have already saved a spot for the Warriors or the Spurs to meet up with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. But having Griffin back on the low block makes the Clippers more lethal than before, thanks to the coaching Rivers.
Since Griffin went down with a quad injury, Rivers has gotten the most and more out of his bench. Austin Rivers, the coach’s son, has been one one of those players who have flourished since Griffin’s injury. The younger Rivers went for 32 points, and nearly took down the Thunder single-handily in a recent two-point defeat to Oklahoma City on the road.
So far, Rivers is averaging 8.8 points a game, a career-best. Rivers’ tinkering with various lineups throughout the season has paid dividends. The Clippers were forced to re-think how to win or lose without Griffin being there. The players have responded. While a lot of teams would have gone under if their star went down, Rivers showed why he is one of the best coaches in the NBA.
When Griffin went down, Rivers and the Clippers knew they were in a sink or swim moment. The Clippers, instead of tanking it, opted to swim the rest of the season. Having Griffin is a little like having a security blanket around you. Chris Paul, who put up 27 points and contributed 12 assists in the victory against the Wizards, won’t have to feel like he has to do all the work.
Center DeAndre Jordan has his fastbreak running buddy with him again. The Clippers formed their version of the Big Three years ago with the mindset that Paul, Griffin and Jordan will be able to get them past the second round and deeper into the postseason. The payoff haven’t arrived yet. If Griffin can dominate the way he usually does in the playoffs, maybe this year will be different.
The expectation is there. The coaching is on point. The assembly of the right kind of talent is in place. Jeff Green, Austin Rivers, Paul Pierce (don’t sleep on this elder statesman), Jamal Crawford, Cole Aldich and Wesley Johnson are going to prove be pivotal in determining how far the Clippers advance. And if Johnson, who has the talent and ability to be a lockdown defender, can take his game to the next level, the Clippers will make a lot of people uncomfortable come playoff time.
But championships are won with stars in the NBA. It’s time for Griffin to lead the way.