Blake Griffin content to dodge spotlight
The Clippers' phenom had his moment to shine Saturday night in the dunk contest
LOS ANGELES -- Blake Griffin and Kevin Love were teasing Kobe Bryant in the West locker room during halftime of Sunday's NBA All-Star Game. Looking at the box score, Love couldn't help but notice he had only two rebounds and Griffin four but Bryant had grabbed six.
"In the locker room, Kevin says, 'You got six rebounds,' and I said, 'Yeah, I got more than you,'" Bryant said. "He said that was probably the first and last time."
Bryant then decided to have fun with the two first-time All-Stars; finishing with a game-high 14 rebounds to go with his game-high 37 points en route to being named the game's MVP.
"After that, I just started stealing rebounds left and right," Bryant said. "Every time I got one, I started pointing at them. They were upset after a free throw it bounced right to me. I'm like, 'That's whacked, man, you have to go get the ball.'"
Griffin smiled as he recalled his game-long repartee with Bryant, whose rebound total was more than that of Griffin and Love combined (9).
"Kevin and I were teasing him about it," Griffin said. "That's supposed to be us getting 14 rebounds."
If it looked as though Bryant was trying to upstage the youngest players in the game, it was all in good fun. If anything, Bryant looked more excited than ever before to pass the league's torch and the keys to the city on to Griffin.
Griffin won Saturday night's Slam Dunk Contest by jumping over a car while a choir sang in the background. It was the highlight of a whirlwind NBA All-Star Weekend for the Clippers rookie, who became the first player to be involved in three events in three days. He was easily the most popular player of the weekend; eliciting chants of, "We want Blake!" late in the Rookie Challenge and All-Star Game and the loudest ovation Staples Center has heard this year for his car-jumping dunk.
Bryant, who is normally defensive when it comes to the notion that he is past his prime, for the first time sounded like an old veteran ready to retire the throne to the upstart rookie in town.
"I've been there, you know what I mean? I had my time," Bryant said. "It's not about that for me at this point in my career. I've been there. It's very important for the game to continue to have the young stars emerge. It's great for the league to get behind Blake and what he's doing. It's important for me to step aside. I've had that."
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Griffin, who finished with 8 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in 14 minutes, seemed more content to take a backseat than grab any kind of baton in his first NBA All-Star Game. There was a certain charm to the simplicity of Griffin's game Sunday. On a stage where every player seemed to be attempting the kind of highlight play Griffin has performed routinely this season, Griffin played a game without any bells and whistles. He instead was one of the few players on the court even attempting a high screen and roll, boxing out, setting picks and looking to pass before shooting.
"Before the game, I said I was going to let [Bryant] do his thing," Griffin said. "He just went out there and took over. It was fun. It was fun to watch a player get off like that and really get his shots. He was just feeling it."
If Griffin hadn't already hijacked nightly sports telecasts with his highlight dunk of the night this season, this weekend might have been considered Griffin's coming-out party, but no one in and around Staples Center needed an introduction to him. In fact, the most talked about event heading into the weekend was the Slam Dunk Contest.
The high-flying 26-year-old event was watched by a record television audience of 8.1 million total viewers, a 49 percent increase over last year and a 23 percent increase from 2009, which set the old record for the dunk contest. Viewership peaked at 10.4 million for Griffin's winning shot.
Griffin had high expectations for himself heading into this season, but no one, not even Griffin himself, could have expected the season he has had and the notoriety he has attained in a city ruled by Bryant and the Lakers.
"I wanted to be an All-Star by my second season, and it's kind of like my second year, I guess," Griffin said. "At the beginning of the year, I was wondering where I was going to fit in on our team and all that. I got the opportunity, and thankfully my teammates and the coaches have been great about helping me. It's kind of just come all at once to be honest."
Griffin, who missed last season with a broken left knee cap, and Bryant, who had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in the offseason, got to know each other this past summer while they rehabbed in the same facility.
"I love Blake, man," Bryant said. "We were doing therapy at the same place, so were sitting next to each other most of the time and got a chance to kind of talk when nobody was around, and I got a chance to know him before all this happened. I'm just very happy for him."
It was during those conversations on the training tables and while watching Griffin from afar this season that Bryant began to realize that the future of the league and Los Angeles would be in good hands when he finally decides to retire. It isn't a subject 32-year-old Bryant has spent much time reflecting on in the past, but he was surprisingly candid about it after the game.
"Like I've said, I've had my time," Bryant said. "It's his time now, and it's these young players' -- the [Kevin] Durants and so forth -- time to step forward and carry the league. I'm on my way out. It's important for them to carry the league."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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