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Has Blake Griffin taken the next step?

After scoring 40 points for the first time since his rookie season against Utah on Saturday, it seems as if Blake Griffin is taking the long anticipated next step in his development as a player.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Blake Griffin was honored with the Player of the Week award for the Western Conference last week. In the four games included in that time frame, he posted averages of 26 points, 11.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists while shooting .522 from the field and .800 from the line. That's a pretty good week.

In the three games that have taken place since then in the most recent week, he averaged 31.7 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3 assists while shooting .571 from the field and .786 from the line. That's an even better week.

He won't win his third Player of the Week award of the season however, because while the Clippers were 4-0 from December 16th through the 22nd, they're just 1-2 since then. Never mind that the games were tougher and could have gone either way and that Griffin was incorrectly ejected from one of them. His raw numbers this week would have been even better had he not been robbed of almost 11 minutes of playing time by the actions of the Warriors and the officials in Oakland. But team record is always a consideration in POW selections, so Griffin won't get there this week. Oh well.

At the time of the ejection in Oakland, I remarked that the officials had deprived the Clippers of their second best player, a characterization to which my colleague John Raffo objected: he insisted that Griffin is the Clippers' best player, at least at this moment in time. I didn't really agree with that (at least not at the time): I'm not much of one for small sample sizes, and Chris Paul is to me clearly the Clippers best player, which is not a knock on Griffin but a recognition of how truly great Paul is. But having said that, Griffin seems intent on making Raffo's case, or at least in making the race a bit tighter.

I don't want to overstate the importance of his improved free throw shooting (plenty of others seem to be doing that) but it is definitely a factor. Players like Paul and Jamal Crawford seek contact and feel a personal victory when they are awarded free threes. It was not that long ago when a trip to the free throw line was not a reward for Griffin but a punishment, but with a 77% mark from the line for the month of December, Griffin has gotten to the point where the numbers say "Let him have the dunk" if he breaks free underneath. That's important, if only for the wear and tear on his body from taking hard fouls. (Obviously as we know from the Warriors game, Blake is still a target of fouling strategies -- but Mark Jackson was driven by more sinister motives than "We'd rather have him shooting free throws than getting an easy basket" as evidenced by the fact that Griffin took two flagrant fouls when he didn't even have possession of the ball.)

As a numbers guy, I would like to put the free throw question into perspective. In 15 games in December, Griffin is getting to the line a little more than eight times per game and making 77% when he gets there. If he can sustain that (and he's actually trending higher on both numbers in more recent weeks), the difference between 77% from the line and 52% from the line (his season percentage from two seasons ago) is two extra points per game:

8 * .77 = 6.16
8 * .52 = 4.16

That's two points he's no longer leaving on the table through poor foul shooting. You don't suppose two free points would make a difference in a game from time to time, do you? And it's arguably more than that if he's getting there more often because he's not afraid of getting fouled.

In fact, in the last five games alone, Griffin has turned in three of his best performances from the line in his career. In 260 career games, Griffin has made at least 80% from the line while taking at least 10 free throws 14 times -- three of those occurred in the course of eight days from last Saturday to this Saturday.

During the offseason, when I examined the strengths and weaknesses in Griffin's development as a player, I singled out two areas that seemed to be of concern: rebounding and free throw attempts. And while he's not yet back to his rookie season baseline (when the youthful Griffin threw himself at every rebound and rabidly attacked the rim on each possession) in those areas, the negative trends have been reversed.

10-11 11-12 12-13 13-14 (32 games)
FTA/36 8.0 7.0 5.9 7.2
FT% .642 .521 .660 .700
R/36 11.4 10.8 9.2 10.4
DR/36 8.3 7.5 6.6 8.1

Given Doc Rivers' philosophy of prioritizing transition defense over offensive rebounds, the fact that Griffin's per minute defensive rebounding is as high as it has been since he was a rookie is a very good sign indeed. And as I mentioned, he's actually getting to the line a little more than eight times a game in the month of December, so that trend has made a complete about face.

Saturday night's game against Utah really seemed to mark a turning point for Griffin. In addition to being his first 40 point game since his rookie season, he also scored 18 points in the fourth quarter, as Rivers called his number repeatedly, essentially saying to the Jazz "We're going to do this until you stop him" -- they never did. Griffin was 5-6 from the field and 8-11 from the line in the quarter -- he also had an assist for a three pointer. We're very accustomed to statements along the lines of "Chris Paul was directly responsible for x of the Clippers final y points" -- but that's not something we often hear about Griffin. Well, "Blake Griffin scored or assisted on 17 of the Clippers final 22 points against Utah." Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

As good as Griffin has always been in his career, he has not generally been a great, or even a particularly good option in the fourth quarter. It's more difficult for big men in crunch time, partly because it's just harder to get the ball to them against increased defensive pressure, so teams tend to rely on perimeter players in the late going because that's who has the ball. But with Griffin spending more time facing the basket, and with his increased skills and confidence, he may be on his way to being a force throughout the game, crunch time included.

He seems to be taking that next step that we've been anticipating. If he is, it will make a very big difference for the Clippers.