Griffin made to be an All-Star
The Clips' phenom has all the star power of the league's elite and deserves recognition
LOS ANGELES -- It's a Monday night in Los Angeles and the 18-28 Clippers are playing the 19-26 Milwaukee Bucks. Normally this would mean a half-empty Staples Center with the majority of the half-full arena comprised of a mixture of students and businessmen who got their tickets for free from their school or office.
That was before the high-flying, red-headed phenomenon that is Blake Griffin descended upon the Los Angeles Clippers.
Suddenly a meaningless game against a no-name opponent has become a must-see affair. Almost every seat in the arena was accounted for as the 17,218 in attendance came to see what Griffin was going to do next.
Griffin is more than simply an NBA All-Star this season. The argument for his inclusion on the roster has become more and more lopsided every time he steps onto the court. He is a superstar the likes of which the league has rarely seen. He is the kind of player the Clippers would have put beside Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in old advertisements to attract fans to buy tickets to watch the Clippers play the role of helpless bystanders to the league's best.
Now, for the first time in the franchise's star-crossed history, one of those truly great players is actually playing for them.
They no longer have to advertise packages for fans to see big-name players on other teams. If anything, opposing teams are now seeing a sudden spike in attendance for Clippers games as fans in other cities are coming out to see Blake for themselves after he has essentially hijacked their late-night highlights this season.
Griffin's game, in all its high-flying, in-your-face, did-you-just-see-that glory, was tailor-made to be in the NBA All-Star Game. Forget for a moment that this year's game is in Los Angeles and he would represent the other team hosting the event besides the Lakers. That's great from a logistical and geographical point of view, but Griffin should be in the game even if he were playing for the Toronto Raptors.
He's the equivalent of a new toy that every veteran All-Star wants to play with. Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul are probably dreaming up ways they can get him the ball above the rim. Normally coaches, who vote on All-Star reserves, are more likely to give the honor to deserving veterans and players on winning teams. But there is no justifiable reason why Griffin shouldn't be the second rookie since 1980, and first since Tim Duncan, to be selected to the All-Star game by the coaches.
Griffin's play has not only attracted more fans in the stands but more media members in a press room which had previously served as owner Donald Sterling's ice cream parlor, filled with more of his friends downing sundaes than reporters filing stories.
After the game, as Griffin sat in the middle of the Clippers locker room, soaking his feet in a bucket of ice, a Clippers backdrop was placed behind him. The influx of new media covering the team has made it almost impossible for him to conduct interviews in front of his locker as he did at the beginning of the season, forcing the team to conduct these mini postgame press conferences for the past two weeks.
The usually shy Griffin has even begun to warm up to all the attention; he is reading a book of jokes one reporter recently gave him. "There are some really good ones in there," Griffin said. "When I return from this road trip, I'll have a pocketful."
In the Clippers' locker room, near the coaches' lockers, there is a dry-erase board with the league standings. Normally an 18-28 team, 21.5 games out of first place, wouldn't keep track of such a depressing thing -- but the way Clippers have played recently, they can finally start keeping track of such things.
The Clippers' 105-98 win over Milwaukee on Monday night was their ninth straight home win, a team record and their longest streak since winning eight straight in 1993, and they are 14-7 in their past 21 games. It might not be enough to get the Clippers into the playoffs after their 5-21 start, which included losing their first 11 on the road, but it is proof that Griffin's impact extends past the box office and highlights and onto the court.
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When Griffin gets the ball in the open court, there is a collective buzz that goes through the crowd, as if Evel Knievel is about to perform a death-defying stunt. You don't know what Griffin will do, but you know whatever he does it will surpass your wildest expectations -- even if he's not successful. Griffin is perhaps the only player in the league who could compile a highlight reel of his missed shots and it would still rival the highlights of any player in the league this season.
Not only has Griffin attracted sellout crowds to Clippers games, but he has also done something almost as unimaginable. He has forced Los Angeles fans to arrive in time for the opening tipoff, knowing a Griffin highlight could come at any moment of the game.
Against the Bucks, one of Griffin's most picturesque dunks of the season came late in the first quarter when Griffin was all alone on a breakaway. Eric Bledsoe fed him the ball and Griffin finished it off with an emphatic windmill jam reminiscent of Dominique Wilkins in his heyday.
Griffin had another breakaway dunk in the third quarter along with a myriad of other players during his 32-point, 11-rebound night (his 39th double-double this season, second-best in the league) which had scouts on press row momentarily stop jotting down notes and look at one another in amazement.
Sit next to a basketball scout during an NBA game and they'll tell you to watch the players without the ball to see how a play develops. It's a seemingly impossible task for a casual fan to do as they move their head side to side to the flick of every pass and follow the ball as if they were watching a tennis match. With Griffin, however, you can't help but become transfixed by his every moment, whether or not he has the ball.
By now anyone who has watched the Clippers understands that if he is on the court, he is in play -- and you don't want to take your eyes off him at the risk of missing one of his highlight-reel dunks.
Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, however, wasn't impressed by any of Griffin's dunks after the game. It was Griffin's diving out of bounds to save a loose ball late in the game that impressed him the most. That play, more than any other, signified the type of player Griffin is and how he has slowly changed the culture of the Clippers.
"Other people would say a dunk, but as a coach, I'm most impressed by the hustle plays," Del Negro said. "Those are the things you're looking for, and when you make a play like that it just gets everybody's energy up. All those plays add up and that's a good sign for us."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.