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Paul Flannery | March 16, 2014

Sunday Shootaround

All eyes on Blake Griffin

What Blake Griffin is and is not

LOS ANGELES -- Blake Griffin scored 37 points on 16 shots on Monday night and all anyone wanted to talk about was how P.J. Tucker popped him.

Tucker is the Suns’ locker room leader, a sort of David West type who commands respect because, according to Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek, "They’re all afraid of him anyway." A second-round pick who played only 83 minutes as a rookie with the Raptors way back in 2006, Tucker worked the overseas circuit for years in Israel, Turkey, Greece, Germany, Italy and Ukraine before resurfacing with the Suns last season. He is to Blake Griffin what a Civic is to a Maserati, but everyone’s equal in a scrum.

Tucker was suspended one game for his elbow and this is not the first time something like this this has happened to Griffin. It wasn’t even the last time that week. On Wednesday, Warriors center Jermaine O’Neal picked up a technical foul after following Griffin back to the bench during a timeout.

After the game, the 17-year veteran of a thousand career games and the owner of a hellacious left hook walked slowly down the hallway. Griffin was there, taking photos and talking with a group of well-wishers.

They acknowledged each other warily, O’Neal kept walking and then thought better of it, circling back to continue the conversation. According to L.A. Times beat man Brad Turner, who had the best vantage point, Griffin asked why O’Neal was coming up on him. Griffin could later be heard saying, "Keep that shit on the court," as staffers tried to get between them. It was tense for a few moments, but they left shaking hands the way two men sizing each other up do, and O’Neal continued on his way.

"That’s between me and him," Griffin said later. In the other locker room, Warriors forward David Lee was telling Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle that it was no coincidence that there was another incident between the two teams involving Griffin.

Never mind that Griffin has become one of the very best offensive players in the league. He is something like a taller version of Charles Barkley, offering a frightening amount of size, mass and athleticism. But that’s not all Griffin brings to the table these days. He has a 17-foot jumper that he makes at a 40 percent clip, a reliable bank shot from the wings and his post moves, while still occasionally awkward, have been more effective. His free throw shooting is even up to a respectable 70 percent. If you were ranking players this season, you’d have him in the top 10 without argument and possibly in the top five.

Never mind all that because the whole Blake Griffin Thing is on full boil. There are various theories that have been around for years. Opponents don’t like his game, his commercials or his tendency to exaggerate contact. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that all of this is coming to a head at the exact moment when Griffin is playing the best basketball of his career.

"It’s amazing. I don’t get it. I honestly don’t," Clippers coach Doc Rivers told me in his office before the Warriors game. "He had that soft label. People come in with that label and labels are hard to get rid of. They really are. They hear it and guys come in, they play him and they hear that label and the next thing they know they’re getting their ass kicked. Physically, by Blake. Speedwise, by Blake. All over the floor. He’s making jumpers, he’s posting them up, he’s more physical than they thought and I think they take it personally. I ain’t going to let this happen to me. Not this guy. What they don’t realize is, he ain’t that guy. He ain’t what they think he is."

There’s an old school line of thinking developing around the league that suggests unless Griffin does something about it on the court instead of putting his arms up and walking away, this will keep happening. The obvious problem is that it’s not 1994 anymore.

Let’s say Griffin finally snaps. He gets suspended, costing the Clippers one of their two best players at a time when the difference between first and fourth place in the Western Conference is less than five games and then there’s a new problem. If opponents think Griffin can get rattled in the regular season, he’ll get it even worse in the playoffs.

"He’s handling it very well," Rivers said. "I think he’s taking more than he deserves, quite honestly. He’s a better man than me, I know that. And I’m glad he is because it’s too important for our team."

Against the Suns, Griffin scored on all manner of face-up jumpers and twisting post moves. He had only a handful of showboat dunks including a Karl Malone homage, yet he missed just two shots and one of them, incredibly, was on a botched dunk attempt. He also made nine of 10 free throws like it was no big thing. If anyone did any punking on Monday night at Staples Center, it was Griffin.

"Honestly it didn’t really feel like it took a lot out of me," Griffin said. "I’m just being honest, but if it looked like that I guess I have to work on my conditioning. When shots are falling like that from the outside, I’ve had to work a lot harder for some shots."

And therein lies not only the seeds of the animosity, but also the flat-out truth. It wasn’t that hard for Griffin, especially in the first quarter when he scored 22 points on only nine shots.

He’s just not supposed to acknowledge that. The proper response would have been a show of fake humility, dutifully recorded and noted in the next day’s papers. But that’s not Blake Griffin.

The Warriors’ game was much harder. The two teams actively dislike each other and while the Clippers downplayed its importance, all one has to do is look at the box score to show that this was no ordinary game.

Griffin logged 42 minutes and played the entire second half. It took him 28 shots to get his 30, but he grabbed 15 rebounds. The last number was probably the most important, considering the Warriors had dominated the glass in their two previous victories this season. But the hard work was eclipsed by a monster follow-up slam he threw down after a missed jumper by Danny Granger.

"I was telling Danny, I’m not going to lie, I kind of wanted it to come off the rim if I’m going to run that hard," Griffin said. "I was at the 3-point line when he shot it and I started running in and it came off just right. I got lucky."

No one believes luck has anything to do with it. His freakish athletic gifts are one thing, and his training regimen is already legendary, but hours before games Griffin can be found on the court getting up shots. He works the perimeter, tossing in bank shots from the wing and releasing that jumper from the top of the key. The hitch in his delivery still makes an occasional appearance, but his form is noticeably smoother.

"Blake just has more confidence in himself," Chris Paul said. "We’ve all had that confidence in him. Nobody works harder. He’s in here every day working. He wants to be and is great and it’s just great to see it all come together."

It’s not just the scoring. When Rivers took over he remembered a conversation with Tony Brown, one of his coaching buddies who worked with Griffin during his rookie season while Griffin was recovering from knee surgery.

"Tony just kept talking about his passing," Rivers said. "It was really interesting because he hadn’t played a game but Tony had done a lot of drill stuff with him and Tony said, ‘Man this kid can be a Bill Walton type passer. I’m telling you, they’ll use him as a scorer but he can be a great passer.’"

When Paul missed 18 games with a separated shoulder, the Clippers went 12-6 and Griffin averaged 27.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists. Far more than the numbers suggest, the Clippers turned Griffin into something like a point forward.

"The thing we started doing more is the advance pass to Blake," Rivers said. "When Chris went out, my concern was Darren (Collison’s) not a point. He’s more of just a guard and not a great decision maker. I was concerned about our decision making so we started outletting it to Blake. When Chris went down we basically told Blake he had to be a facilitator and a scorer. We kind of fell into the fast break stuff with Blake bringing it up. Now with Chris back that makes us really lethal."

"What they don’t realize is, he ain’t that guy. He ain’t what they think he is." -Doc Rivers on Blake Griffin's soft reputation

When Paul returned he blended seamlessly back into the mix and the Clippers really took off, winning 10 straight games and looking as legit as any of the other contenders in the Western Conference. When healthy, the Paul-Griffin combo is as good as any two-man pairing in the league.

Injuries remain an ever-present concern. Paul hurt his groin in Monday’s game but vowed to continue playing. The Clippers are hopeful about getting Jamal Crawford back soon, but the signs are still vague on J.J. Redick, who has been out with a back injury. Granger has stepped up in their absence since arriving via a buyout, but imagine those empty spaces on the wing with Crawford or Redick waiting for Griffin or Paul to kick it to them for a three.

The injuries are all the more reason to laud Griffin’s breakout campaign, a fact acknowledged that has been grudgingly accepted by opponents if not the general public. Not yet, anyway. That acceptance will have to wait until the playoffs, which will be his and the Clippers’ greatest test.

"I agree with anyone who says that we’re having a great regular season but the proof is in the pudding in the playoffs," Rivers said. "I think this team needs to win a series and then I think, watch out. That’s how I look at our team."

Doc was speaking generally, but the same holds true for Griffin. He has yet to have a signature playoff run, a fact mitigated by injuries including a high ankle sprain against the Grizzlies last season, but a fact nonetheless. Until then, people will talk. They should just understand everything that Griffin is doing out on the court.

OvertimeMore thoughts from the week that was

Back on March 6, Phoenix Suns swingman Gerald Green scored 41 points in a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was the same Gerald Green who was out of the league for two years playing in Russia and the D-League. The same Gerald Green whose most notable claim to NBA fame was the birthday cake candle dunk.

Green was a lost cause in Boston, where the Celtics included him in the Kevin Garnett trade. When he failed to catch on in Minnesota, he was dealt to the Rockets, who waived him a few weeks later. Then it was on to Dallas, and finally Russia and the D-League.

It was in the D-League where Green hooked up with former NBA coach Eric Musselman, who told him that he not only belonged in the NBA, but he could be a good player once he returned. Green got his chance with the Nets midway through the 2011-12 season and played the best basketball of his career to that point. That run with the Nets landed him a 3-year contract with the Pacers, who promptly traded him to Phoenix after one season as part of the Luis Scola deal.

And now, finally, Green is flourishing. In addition to his OKC binge, he scored 33 against the Hawks and dropped 36 on the Nuggets. He’s averaging almost 16 points a game for the season with a True Shooting percentage of .587, which is roughly in line on a per-minute basis with what he was able to do two years ago with the Nets.

"It’s the difference between a 19-year-old kid and a 28-year-old man," said Suns GM Ryan McDonough, who was with the Celtics when they drafted him in the first round. "When he came out of high school, people anointed him for something he wasn’t ready for: You’re going to be the next T-Mac, the next Kobe. He was more of a talent at that point than a basketball player."

Green just needed an opportunity, which is may as well be the tagline for the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns. Watching him get up jumpers before the Suns played the Clippers, McDonough marveled at how far Green has come.

"Well, we didn’t expect him to play like an All-Star," McDonough said. "We thought he’d fit in well. What we realistically thought was possible was to have him play like he did in New Jersey a couple of years ago. We certainly didn’t see that coming, nor did we expect that going forward. But he’s been great for us. We’ve got him for this year and next and hopefully for a long time."

The crazier thing is Green may not even be the biggest surprise on the most surprising team in the league. Goran Dragic has performed at an All-Star level. Eric Bledsoe was as well until he got hurt. Markieff Morris is one of the leading contenders for the Sixth Man award and his twin brother Marcus has become a solid reserve. Miles Plumlee is a starting center. That doesn’t even take into account Jeff Hornacek, who is on the short list for Coach of the Year honors in his first season at the helm.

"We hoped he’d be good right away and he’s been unbelievable," McDonough said. "He’s created a culture of unselfish play and hard work. But he’s also given the guys a great deal of confidence. Gerald Green is maybe the best example of that. His whole life people have said, ‘Don’t take that shot. It’s a bad shot. You have to work the ball and get a better shot.’ Jeff tells him the opposite. ‘When you’re open, I’m going to get mad at you if you don’t shoot it.’"

When McDonough took over as GM, he thought he had some talent with Dragic and the Morris twins. He then went out added more, grabbing Bledsoe, Green and Plumlee while shedding veterans and stockpiling draft picks. The plan was to give them an opportunity to play and see what they had. It just turned out that they had a lot more than anyone -- including McDonough -- thought they did.

The Suns have relatively clean books and ample cap space this summer to go along with the six first-round picks McDonough has at his disposal over the next two years. They want to use that space, along with the picks, to try and get an All-Star to add to the existing core as early as this summer, if possible. That’s the plan. The new one anyway.

"The plan is interesting," McDonough said. "Our plan was to create an opportunity for the young guys to play and give them a chance and guys who hadn’t been given a chance, to give them a chance. I think a lot of people misconstrued that as we’re trying to lose intentionally and that wasn’t the case at all. With all the interest in the draft and the tanking buzzword that’s kind of been out there, people say, ‘Are you disappointed?’ No. If you lose a lot of games the best thing that could happen is you get a player that’s hopefully as good as some of these guys. Why don’t we just win right now and add to that?"

Even with that cap space, every prominent player is signed for next year except for Bledsoe, who can be a restricted free agent after the season. (Channing Frye also has a player option on the last year of his deal.) Phoenix was 19-11 when Bledsoe got hurt and managed to go 17-16 in his absence, holding it together admirably while he recovered from knee surgery. But after losing two to the Clippers and another to the Warriors in a brutal four-game stretch, the Suns were anxiously awaiting his return on Wednesday against the Cavaliers.

"When he was healthy he played like an All-Star," McDonough said. "We still intend on re-signing him. We have an extra year if we want to use it in free agency. We have higher percentages we can give him. We’re interested to see how he looks when he comes back but it really doesn’t change. He’s 24 years old. He’s a unique player with his speed and power and ability to disrupt a game defensively. Our books are very clean going forward. We have every intention of bringing him back."

If the future looks promising in Phoenix, the present is starting to look bleak. Even with Bledsoe back in the lineup, the Suns lost at home to the Cavaliers by double digits. With 11 of their final 17 games on the road, they’re in danger of falling out of the playoff race completely. The Grizzlies passed them on Monday and they’ll fight it out with Memphis and Dallas for the final two spots.

Regardless of how this turns out, it’s been a far more compelling season in Phoenix than anyone anticipated. It will be interesting to look back in five years and compare the fortunes of the Sixers, Magic and Celtics with the Suns. All four have draft picks, cap space and flexibility. Only one has players.

Viewers GuideWhat we'll be watching this week

MONDAY Suns at Nets

Say it with me: I will not write off Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. I will not write off Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. I will not write off Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. It would be nice if KG’s back cooperated though.

TUESDAY Heat at Cavaliers

Since LeBron James left four years ago, the Cavs have won 89 games. They’ve had two coaches, two GMs and added six first-round draft picks while swinging and missing on Andrew Bynum. They are not close to being ready to win, yet there are still some people that think LeBron will seriously considering returning whenever the Heat decide they’ve had enough. Really.

WEDNESDAY Wolves at Mavericks

The Wolves have won eight out of 12, but the ever-sharp Britt Robson has already penned their obituary for the season, noting that they would have to play something like .750 ball to even attempt at making up the five-game gap in the standings. This week looms large for those flickering hopes with games against Dallas, Houston and Phoenix. Assuming they can’t pull it off, the Wolves will go into the offseason with as many questions as anyone, particularly regarding Kevin Love, who can be a free agent after next season. Most people around the league expect them to sit tight with Love and try to replicate what Portland was able to achieve this season, but the clock is ticking.

THURSDAY Wizards at Blazers

As good as they’ve been, the Trail Blazers have looked like the most vulnerable out of any of the top teams in the West. They lost the first four games on their road trip and are just 7-8 since the All-Star break. Adding to the misery is the loss of LaMarcus Aldridge, who is out for at least a few games with a back contusion after suffering a nasty fall against the Spurs. Fortunately for Aldridge, it could have been worse, which is about the best thing you can say about Portland these days.

FRIDAY Bulls at Pacers

Let’s play the matchup game. Imagine a second-round meeting between the Pacers and Bulls. Both teams are built on tough, hard-nosed defenses. Scoring will be tough and each game will be a grind. The Pacers have been scuffling, while the Bulls have been surging. This will be a popular upset pick if it happens and it would be a nightmare scenario for Indiana to lose to their neighbors before they even get another shot at Miami.

SATURDAY Spurs at Warriors

Remember those predictions of stardom for Kawhi Leonard? Since he returned to the lineup on Feb. 26, the Spurs have won nine straight games by a total of 135 points. Leonard is right on track and so are the Spurs, who took over the top spot in the West last week and are looking as good as ever.

SUNDAY Hawks at Raptors

Beginning this week, the Raptors play five of eight games against teams who are out playoff contention. There’s a matchup with the Thunder and two with the Hawks, who have been in freefall for weeks. The franchise record for wins is 47 and there’s a decent chance they’ll surpass that mark if they take care of business.

The ListNBA players in some made up category

We’ve done the Rookies and the MVP candidates the last few weeks, so let’s turn our attention to the top coaches this season.

1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio: We take the Spurs for granted because they always do this. We take it as learned wisdom that Pop will plug in a few of his deep reserves whenever his veterans miss time with injuries and the Spurs will roll right along. We should stop doing that and acknowledge the best coach in the game when he’s at the peak of his profession.

2. Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix: They really weren’t supposed to do this. No matter how well things have worked out and how much talent was already in the pipeline, the Suns have surpassed so many expectations that it’s almost futile to revisit them. Credit the players, but also credit the system that Hornacek has devised in his first year on the job. It’s a throwback to the Suns teams he used to play on with Kevin Johnson, and it’s perfect style for both his team and the franchise.

3. Steve Clifford, Charlotte: The Bobcats have the league’s sixth-best defensive rating without elite defensive talent and are on the verge of the second playoff appearance in franchise history. Clifford waited a long time for this opportunity and he’s delivered the goods.

4. Tom Thibodeau, Chicago: The game’s ultimate grinder has pulled off what may be his most masterful coaching job this season. You don’t want to face this man in the postseason, or his suffocating defense.

5. Terry Stotts, Portland: We had Stotts on top for almost the entire season, but the Blazers fade has coincided with his fall down the list. That shouldn’t take anything away with the job he’s done. It’s just a brutal business and top five this season is a massive accomplishment.

With apologies to: Dwane Casey, Frank Vogel, Erik Spoelstra, Kevin McHale and Doc Rivers.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

The Pistons are defenseless

The Pistons defense is an embarrassment and Mike Prada has the visual proof.

A very based feud

Lil B explains his Kevin Durant beef to Jake Fischer.

The age minimum serves no one

Tom Ziller takes on the age limit and no one is spared.

The Phil Jackson saga

Seth Rosenthal wrote the best Phil Jackson column of the week.

COACH SHEED

James Herbert catches up with Coach Sheed, who’s a lot like old Sheed.

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"Oh, yeah, let's just play next year and let's just suck again. No. Absolutely not. It's my job to go out there on the court and perform, no excuses for it. Right? You've got to get things done. Same thing with the front office. The same expectations they have of me when I perform on the court, it's the same expectations I have for them up there." -- Kobe Bryant, laying down the gauntlet.

Reaction: You can go two with ways this. You can bash Kobe’s insanity for expecting Mitch Kupchak to conjure a roster from scratch with limited assets, or you can admire his psychotic competitiveness. Frustrated Kobe may be the most compelling Kobe of all. But wait! There’s more from Lakerland ...

"In signing Phil Jackson, [Knicks] Owner Jim Dolan & [team executive] Steve Mills are saying to the Knicks fans, they're ready to win now!" -- Magic Johnson, via Twitter.

Reaction: It’s odd how Magic’s version of team-building has become more laughable with every passing year. He’s become the Laker version of Tommy LaSorda, selling a myth that no longer exists. It took Jerry West five years to build up the assets and flexibility get Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, but sure, the Knicks are ready to win now.

"I don't think it'll have any effect on me, just as far as what I'm thinking or my decision or anything like that. Like I said, I haven't talked to Phil yet, just to get his insight on a lot of things -- what's his plan, what's his future plan -- because everything's in his hands now." -- Carmelo Anthony, reacting to Phil Jackson’s role with the Knicks.

Reaction: This whole thing is doomed, right? Phil in New York, or at least his spirit or something. Kobe stewing in L.A. Melo should get out while the getting’s good. Maybe go to Los Angeles and form the weirdest 1-2 punch in the league.

"He’s just relentless. He keeps you on the side of him. He’s a lot stronger -- a lot stronger than he looks. You have to play against them a bunch to understand that. You see this little guy, but he plays a physical guard game." -- Clippers coach Doc Rivers on Goran Dragic.

Reaction: Dragic looks drained. In his last five games coming into the weekend, he’s shooting under 47 percent and has committed 18 turnovers. His style of play is relentless and also unforgiving, which is another reason the Suns want to keep Bledsoe.

This Week in GIFsfurther explanation unnecessary

Charles Barkley

Chuck falls asleep on national TV. And he isn't even covering college basketball yet.

Benny the Bull

Adorable.

Brooklyn Ball Boy

That was a close one.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Chris Mottram | Editors: Tom Ziller

About the Author

Paulflannery_sbhed

Paul Flannery writes about the NBA for SBNation.com and teaches journalism at Boston University. He lives in Cambridge, hates to drive and is probably waiting for the Green Line.

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