Clippers should be encouraged by Blake Griffin’s recent play

Apr 10, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) puts up a shot over Dallas Mavericks forward Dwight Powell (7) during the fourth quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 10, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) puts up a shot over Dallas Mavericks forward Dwight Powell (7) during the fourth quarter at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports /

As Blake Griffin gradually finds his form and shows more improvement on the court, the Los Angeles Clippers should be encouraged with his progress as he makes them a greater playoff threat.

The Los Angeles Clippers haven’t lost since Blake Griffin returned, although it’s not because of a top-form Griffin racking 25 points every night. Instead, his return has been a benefit alongside the improved play of the rest of the team and an easy schedule. That being said, while Griffin gradually returns to form, the Clippers should be far more encouraged with the way he’s playing.

Upon his return, the absence that spanned just over three months was obviously noticeable. For each play in which his size, athleticism or passing from the post gave fans a smile of relief that he’d returned, there were plays that revealed a clear tentativeness and lack of conditioning that so much time off and multiple injuries were bound to cause.

It’s impossible to avoid that, and after following up his return game with four points, three rebounds, three assists and, most importantly, only 16 minutes playing time, it was easy to doubt that Griffin would be able to find reliable form before the playoffs begin. With a small handful of games to be the All-NBA caliber force that the Clippers need him to be in order to be at their best, did Griffin really have enough time?

In all honesty, he still doesn’t. If he sits the Clippers’ final game of the regular season against the Phoenix Suns (as Doc Rivers has said he may), Griffin will have had just five games to prepare. Perhaps if his quadriceps injury was handled correctly he could have returned, but now that’s no comfort to his team or fans as he’s left with minimal time to shake off the rust and gel with his teammates again.

However, as the time goes by and his time on the court increases, there are more positives signs that should both encourage the Clippers and make them more of a threat come playoff time.

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After 16 slow minutes against the Lakers in his second game back, Griffin followed up with 13 points, eight rebounds and three assists in the next contest against the hometown rivals. In 24 minutes, he took another step forward with his confidence, offensive rhythm and conditioning. To further that trend, he put together an excellent second half performance in a 98-91 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday.

After starting 2-of-11 from the field, Griffin finished 7-of-18 for 17 points with 11 rebounds, seven assists and two steals (all new highs since his return). He kept shooting and looking to attack the paint with drives and rolls to the basket, finishing plays like the following.

Using his guard-like handles to take the slower Zaza Pachulia off the dribble, Griffin tore straight through the Mavs’ interior defense. And while he’s already hard enough to stop in one-on-one matchups, opposing defenders have to help with caution to avoid giving up more space for others, consequently leaving Griffin an easy opportunity to create a shot for someone else with his excellent passing ability.

Griffin driving hook vs Mavs
Griffin driving hook vs Mavs /

Soon after in the third, Griffin pulled off a similar power drive to the basket, this time over the far less bouncy legs of Dirk Nowitzki.

The simple pick-and-roll threat with Chris Paul is so deadly. Pachulia was baited into moving closer to Paul alongside Deron Williams in order to prevent a baseline drive, leaving Griffin with room in the process to drive to the basket and finish through any remaining defenders as he can so easily at his best. If he elected not to drive, he’d have been left with a wide open jumper from just inside the elbow instead.

The more time Griffin gets under his belt, the better. But that kind of explosion and aggression is what the Clippers need, even if he used a finger roll instead of a poster dunk to get the job done. Plus, his very presence and pick-and-roll threat on the court makes opponents worry, creating opportunities inside and space outside.

Griffin drive vs Dirk
Griffin drive vs Dirk /

In the fourth quarter, Griffin went to work with his strength and size to make the most of generous mismatches, backing down players like 6’1″ Raymond Felton as if they were kids challenging the adults in a local pickup game.

Felton even attempting to guard an overpowering force like Griffin was just a formality to avoid playing zero defense. But even with such a size advantage, Griffin still showed his strong ball handling and comfort with such mismatches in the post, creating with improved confidence in ways that no other undersized four such as Jeff Green or Paul Pierce could hope to.

Griffin drive vs Mavs' Felton
Griffin drive vs Mavs' Felton /

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These are the types of plays that no one else in the Clippers frontcourt can create, and seeing as the likes of Pierce and Green are so inconsistent from range, Griffin’s return down low is an immediate upgrade when he can create offense in such a manner. And as his confidence and conditioning increases, with the shooting stroke and soft touch near the rim surely following, he’ll be more effective as time goes by.

Griffin said that in order for him to overcome that slow start and have his best spell of play since returning from injury, recording 13 points, nine rebounds and five assists in the second half alone, aggression was the key:

"“In the beginning of the second half, I tried to put a little more aggressive into defense and tried to let that get me going,” Griffin said. “Being aggressive offensively, rolling to the rim instead of just settling for jumpers, kind of got me going a little bit. That was kind of the mindset going into the second half,” Griffin said to Rowan Kavner of"

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The accompaniment that Griffin needs to this confidence is time. Time to both get back to his own personal form and find a consistent rhythm with his teammates as they return to their typical frontcourt lineup. The problem is that the Clippers simply don’t have time, with only two regular season games left.

The wins don’t matter at this point. The Clippers are locked into the 4th seed and there’s nothing they can do about their first round opponent for the playoffs, meaning the real purpose of these next two games is getting Griffin on the court as much as possible.

From letting him work out the kinks in his personal game to finding that form working from the post and in the pick-and-roll/pop with Paul, he needs every minute he can get if the Clippers want to be close to their best through April and ideally May.

Next: Clippers now expecting matchup against Blazers in first round

Hopefully for the sake of Griffin and the team, Doc decides to let him play against the Suns. Because after a strong finish in his best performance since returning, the comeback is starting to take shape.