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Griffin, Clippers Quietly Putting it Back Together

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The Clippers have been here before, and so has Blake Griffin.

For a team whose top-heavy identity has long been so tied to three big-name stars, the Clips have played a surprising amount without at least one-third of their triumvirate over the last few years. Griffin himself is the most common absence, with a double-digit game absence now on his record in each of the last three seasons. Paul is only on his second extended absence in the last four, but he’s had a string of unlucky incidents in the playoffs. These various maladies have overlapped each other back and forth, with only DeAndre Jordan serving as a beacon of health.

One of those periods of overlap came earlier this season, with the Clippers going 3-7 over 10 games while both Paul and Griffin sat out. With Griffin back, some things are starting to feel similar to recent years – but others aren’t.

Paul’s last extended absence with Griffin healthy came all the way back in 2013-14, when CP3 missed about a month in January and February. Griffin went supernova: 28 points a night on 55 percent shooting, eight boards, nearly five assists and barely half that many turnovers. He shot a third of the Clippers’ free throws every night, and used a percentage of team possessions comparable with the Westbrooks and Hardens of the world. Los Angeles went 12-6 in those eight games.

“The last time Chris went out, Blake was playing,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He was in rhythm, he was healthy. This time, Blake has not been playing.”

The period of inactivity doesn’t seem to be changing much individually. Griffin has still been very efficient overall, especially considering his long layoff before returning – he’s averaging a rounded 24-9-6 on 51.5 percent shooting, with a pretty similar workload to that stretch a few years ago. He also just won Player of the Week in the Western Conference.

From a team standpoint, the results started mixed and are trending firmly upward. The Clippers are 5-5 in the 10 games Blake’s been back, with an iffy per-possession rating that’s mostly influenced by the front end of that stretch, which contained two games against the Warriors. They’ve also won four straight, including a dominant win in a tough Utah Jazz building Monday night and another blowout Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks.

“Our guys have not been playing with him, [and] they’re trying to get our rhythm with him,” Rivers said. “It’s a lot different… you can feel our team starting to get it.”

Whether it’s lingering injury effects or still being somewhat rusty, Griffin is sporting those healthy individual numbers despite serious issues (for him) finishing at the rim. This season would be by far the worst of his career for his percentages at the basket, and it’s been even worse during the stretch since he’s returned from injury: Blake is converting just over 56 percent of his shots within five feet, per NBA.com. For comparison, his figures here over the last three full seasons have been 69 percent, 64 percent and 69 percent.

“I’d love to finish better at the rim,” Griffin said. “But it’s encouraging because those are the easy ones.”

He’s doing a lot of the hard stuff well, too, and it’s a tantalizing preview of what could come once his legs are fully back under him in those closer areas. Griffin has long been mastering his midrange game, and he’s lighting nets on fire since returning.

From the longer midrange areas, he’s in LaMarcus Aldridge accuracy during this stretch – his silly 55 percent from between 20 and 24 feet will eventually come back to earth, but perhaps not as heavily as his rim finishing will rise up to it. He’s had issues in the past with the little “in between” floater area between five and nine feet from the hoop, but he’s found his touch there recently as well.

He’s even shooting over 40 percent on more than one three-point attempt a night, though this is another tiny sample that’s likely to regress. Still, it’s all part of the plan.

“Our team dynamic changes a lot with CP out,” Griffin said. “Trying to space the floor right is something I’ve met with Doc about a lot since I’ve been back, finding spots to space the floor, especially when we have certain lineups in there.”

When he’s doing this stuff well, there aren’t many more devastating offensive players in the game. Griffin has long been one of the league’s preeminent passers among guys his size – of 81 6-foot-10 or taller rotation players in the NBA, he trails only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Al Horford and Marc Gasol in potential assists created per game this year, per SportVU data. In this latest stretch since returning, he’d eclipse each of those guys as well.

Some of that feel was another struggle when he first got back, as well. He had eight turnovers in barely 53 minutes in his first two games back, maybe a result of going a bit too fast.

“The first thing you lose, for me, is always my rhythm,” Griffin said. “Just the stupid little turnovers, trying to do too much.

“When you’re more patient, it definitely slows down. Getting out in transition has been big for us, too.”

He sure isn’t kidding on that last bit. The Clippers have mostly been an average team attacking in transition the last few years, including this one – except for this most recent stretch. Since Griffin’s return, only the Warriors and Suns score more per-possession points on the break than the Clippers. LA’s pace has been significantly faster with Griffin on the court during these stretches.

And without his normal running mate in Paul, Griffin has begun forging a different connection.

“Blake and Austin [Rivers] have their little game going,” Doc Rivers said. “I’m not sure what they’re doing, but it’s been really good. They play their own little game now, and they talk about it. I don’t want to know. I really don’t. It’s been really good, and that’s something they didn’t do earlier. And that’s why our first unit now is getting out to good starts.”

Their own thing, indeed. Rivers has passed the ball to Griffin 224 times since Blake’s return, per SportVU figures – he hasn’t passed it to any other teammate even 100 times in that stretch, and hasn’t received it from any teammate more often than Griffin. Blake is shooting an even 50 percent on shots directly following Rivers passes; Rivers is 10-for-17 on threes attempted after a Griffin pass, a nod to how much defensive focus Griffin demands.

“He just draws so much attention, so it’s easy for him,” Rivers said. “They go and double, and we have a lot of shooters and scorers around him. He’s been great at finding us, picking and choosing his spots.”

Despite a negative overall team rating during his return stretch, the Griffin-Rivers duo is outscoring teams at a top-five per possession rate it the league. Rivers is playing one of his strongest stretches of basketball in his career, including an understated defensive improvement that really began last year.

And with Paul’s return finally within shouting distance as the All-Star break hits, the Clippers look to be quietly forming up for what might be one last charge at glory with this core group. Rivers’ strong play will be a real asset for bench units that have been the team’s undoing in previous stretch runs; Griffin’s clear confidence shooting the ball could be huge when it comes time for a hyper-specific playoff matchup.

The Clippers have managed to cede virtually no ground in the standings during their injured stretches, which is a major win. They sat two games ahead of the Jazz for the West’s fourth seed prior to Griffin’s first missed game on December 20; they now sit one game ahead of that same Utah team. Leave it to the always eloquent Jamal Crawford to tell you why.

“He’s flying through the air, he’s blocking shots, he’s getting steals,” Crawford said of Griffin. “He’s getting assists, he’s scoring. He’s just doing everything. There’s a top shelf of NBA players, and he’s on that shelf. Period. No matter who’s on there, he’s on there with them.”

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About Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.