It was Thursday, May 19th, 2012. The large digital clock hanging on the locker room wall ticked down until tipoff. I had driven up to San Antonio earlier that week to begin covering the Western Conference Semi-Finals between the Spurs and the young, exciting and banged up Los Angeles Clippers. I was standing in front of Eric Bledsoe's locker, waiting to talk to the second year guard about his recent stretch of brilliant play. The room was rather quiet for a team with such large personalities. After getting blown out in the first game of the series, the team knew that they were facing off against a team that was far superior in every way.
Down the hall on a training table lies Chris Paul, squinting at his phone as he received a massage. Vinny Del Negro stops by for a quick chat before heading to his office. Nick Young hikes up his leg sleeves while Caron Butler takes his pick of the assortment of gum on the snack table. Then Blake Griffin emerges from from the training room, grabbing a salad from the refrigerator before taking a seat at his locker. Slowly, his eyes turned towards the television, which was tuned into ESPN's broadcast of the Heat-Pacers game. The NBA Countdown panel was doing a tease for the upcoming matchup between the Clippers and Spurs, and to a man, Michael Wilbon, Jon Barry and Magic Johnson all talked about how Blake Griffin needed to be more aggressive for Los Angeles to succeed.
I remember Blake looking at the screen without showing any emotion. Athletes love to say that they don't pay attention to what people are saying about them, but here's an instance where Griffin couldn't deny hearing what the talking heads were saying about him. It was a moment of introspection for Griffin, who was giving the game everything he had while playing with a sprained knee. It was eerily similar to a time two months later when Griffin sat on the bench during a Team USA practice wondering if a twist of that same knee was going to cost him a chance at a gold medal.
Later that night, the Spurs would trounce the Clippers again. Griffin contributed 20 points, but pulled down just one rebound, which remains his lowest output on the boards for his career. Though the Clippers would put up a fight when the series shifted back to the Staples Center, San Antonio's precise execution was too much for the inexperienced Clippers, who were eliminated in the second round in the first year of Paul/Griffin era.
★ ★ ★
Ever since he came into the league, people have tried to diminish Griffin's athletic brilliance by belittling his other natural gifts. They say that those powerful and elegant dunks are his only weapons and that it doesn't take any skill to pull them off. His extravagant throwdowns get under people's skin because they perceive him as a showoff, as someone who goes out of his way to show up his opponents and embellishes anytime someone makes contact with him. What's interesting, though, is that Griffin doesn't seek out the animosity like Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook do. Griffin wants to be liked. He's a brand ambassador for several companies, and being a villain isn't going to sell Kias.
But somewhere along the line, Griffin being regarded as a superb athlete and not a basketball player developed into something even less accurate: him being labeled as 'soft'. I'm not sure when this impression was formed or where it spread from, but it's clear that it has made its way to the floor. Though Griffin is not without blame, skirmishes involving Griffin happen on an almost nightly basis nowadays as teams believe they can get an edge on him by pushing him around. And while stopping short of calling him soft, even Griffin's former teammate Chauncey Billups said that Griffin may be "too nice of a guy."
It's ironic, really. I mean, you can kind of see how that ridiculous 'soft' tag could wind up being placed on someone like Pau Gasol, a receptive and skilled foreign player with a lean build that has struggled guarding stronger players on the block.
But Griffin? There's nothing soft about him. His physique is chiseled and broad, bulky yet compact, his muscles defined yet not overly detailed. He's the athletic marvel of the league, a man blessed the brute strength and imposing frame of Karl Malone and the athletic grace, daring creativity and seamless fluidity of Vince Carter. It's as if Griffin was born as another LeBron but molded throughout his formative years to play more on the interior than on the perimeter.
And the comparisons between Griffin and James don't stop at their unprecedented physical traits. The misconception that Griffin is only a dunker has never looked more idiotic than right now, as Griffin has taken his game to an MVP level this season, showcasing a wide variety of skills that we've never seen before from a 6'10" post player.
When Paul went down during the middle of the season with a separated shoulder, Griffin took on added responsibility and flourished. He began leading fastbreaks with his tremendous handle, displaying an uncanny ability to stay under control for someone so big and powerful, and he passed the ball exceptionally well, making next level reads and showing that he understands the finer details of defensive rotations in the NBA. Griffin shot 48% on post-ups this season, shattering the notion that he had no post moves, and there was an incalculable difference in his confidence when stepping into mid-range jumpers, even breaking out an 18 foot bankshot that Tim Duncan would be proud of.
Griffin has come a long way over the past few years. There was a time when there was truth in suggesting that Griffin was surviving off of his athleticism, but over time the breadth of his skillset has come into focus, making it crystal clear that Griffin will be in the discussion as a top five player in the game for a decade to come.
★ ★ ★
In many ways, Griffin's career arc, albeit an expedited one, resembles that of one of Hollywood's biggest stars: Will Smith. Smith began his acting career playing himself on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, living it up on one of the most memorable comedy series of my generation. Though the show was successful, Smith knew that he had too much potential to focus on making fun of Carlton and Uncle Phil, and not even a decade after he dropped the Fresh Prince tag, he was one of the the highest grossing movie stars of all-time and one hell of a dramatic actor.
I think Griffin came to a similar realization over the past year. He's always been a jovial person and and his game is extremely festive and welcoming to the common fan. But once Chris Paul arrived in Los Angeles, expectations for the franchise changed drastically. With that Griffin has endured more and more criticism each time his team fails in the post-season, and each time a tussle for a rebound ends up with Blake staring his opponent down, that cheery disposition of his starts to fade away.
Los Angeles was always the perfect place for Griffin. Not only was he born with a chassis that resembles sculptures of Greek Gods, he also has a radiating charisma. His time with the Clippers has provided Griffin with ancillary opportunities that have benefited his brand. He's on your television selling cars and GameFly subscriptions and he's on your computer screen staring in a hilarious new skit for FunnyOrDie. Griffin clearly has a gift for lightening up the mood with his dry sense of humor and he's got a future in comedy ahead of him once he's done playing.
But after a few years of torment and disrespect, Griffin set out this year to make it clear what kind of player he was. He put the flash aside and prioritized the substance, and thanks to his undying work ethic, he's has refined one of the most unique skillsets in the game to the point where he is widely considered as one of the best players on the planet. He maintains his likable off the court persona while morphing into a versatile beast on the floor that no opponent wants any part of.
And now it's time for Griffin to complete his transformation from a sitcom star to an Oscar nominee, from Slam Dunk Champion to MVP candidate, by helping Chris Paul hang another championship banner in the rafters at Staples Center.
Only this time, that championship banner will be blue and red.