Come together, right now

May, 8, 2012
5/08/12
7:58
AM PT


LOS ANGELES -- He'd flown through the night to arrive on time, and after three weeks of dangling in maddening uncertainty while the New Orleans Hornets worked out David Stern's version of the very best deal possible, you had to figure Chris Paul might say a few things on his first day as a Clipper he'd regret later.

Right off the top he started talking about being excited to join this "unbelievable franchise with so much history behind it" and you were wondering if the man had any idea of what he'd just signed up for.

Los Angeles Clippers history? There aren’t many parts worth telling. But the more Paul talked about the Clippers' present and future, the more he explained why he he'd chosen them over every other team that expressed an interest, the more obvious it became why he was here.

Of all the sidekicks, in all the joints in the NBA, Chris Paul walked into Blake Griffin's.

It was both a tremendous compliment and a tremendous burden for Griffin to live up to. As brilliant as he was as a rookie, Griffin was still young and unformed.

But part of what makes Paul such a good point guard is his vision. And on this subject he had no doubt: Griffin was good enough.

Paul wasn't interested in first-round playoff losses anymore. He could've stayed in New Orleans for that. Leaving the Hornets was winning more and winning faster, and for some reason, Paul thought Griffin was up to that task, now.

"I had NBA TV,'' Paul joked, when asked whether he was confident Griffin could grow into the teammate he needed him to be. "So yeah, I knew. ... The sky was the limit."

Despite Paul’s faith, it hasn't always seemed like Griffin would be ready this year. He's improved from his rookie season for the ages, but every step forward has brought a new level of scrutiny -- and abuse -- from the rest of the league. Success was painful, not sweet anymore.

His first three playoff games in this series were no different. Good not, great. Tough enough, but every bit of it still a struggle. Then came his 30-point, seven-assist game in Monday’s 101-97 win over the Memphis Grizzlies that gave the Clippers a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series.

“Outstanding," Paul said. "Just outstanding. We knew it was going to come."

For the first time Griffin looked like the player Paul envisioned all those months ago on his early-morning flight to Los Angeles.

It was one game, and so Griffin took no bows afterwards. He’s aiming as high as Paul is, too. But for a brief moment he let us all in on the path he’s been walking.

"I have a lot to prove,'' Griffin said. "This year especially, I felt like there's really been a drive inside of me that I need to step up, and step up on a team that actually wins games.

"Last year we were out of a lot of games, and I found out really quickly that it's a lot different to score and rebound in games that aren't close. Doing it games that are close is a lot different."

That Griffin’s breakthrough playoff performance came against the Grizzlies, and head-to-head with Zach Randolph, is especially fitting.

It was Randolph, if you remember, who was unceremoniously shipped out of Los Angeles not long after the Clippers took Griffin No. 1 overall in the 2009 NBA draft. In what will go down as one of the great salary-dumps of recent NBA history, Memphis acquired their future All-Star for Quentin Richardson, whom the Clippers promptly traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"As soon as they got the No. 1 pick I had a feeling," Randolph said before the game. "Me and Blake play the same position and they've got to play the No. 1 pick. It's nothing personal. I feel like if they wouldn't have lucked up and got the No. 1 pick, I'd probably still be here. But there's no hard feelings."

Or, as Memphis coach Lionel Hollins put it: "If you're going to put a guy's face on the billboards and the sides of buses, you don't want him coming off the bench. ... So we knew [Randolph] was available."

Through the first two seasons, you'd have to say the trade worked out well for each side. Randolph became an All-Star; Griffin jumped over cars. The Grizzlies won a playoff series; the Clippers um, got better.

But it wasn't until Paul saw what he saw in Griffin last December that the full impact of the trade could be measured. And it probably wasn't until Monday night that it became clear just how much better the Clippers will be in the long run for having made it.

As good as Randolph is, as fundamentally sound as his game is -- even now, compared to Griffin -- Paul doesn't come here for him.

"It was a difficult decision to move Z-Bo," Clippers general manager Neil Olshey said via text late Monday night. "He's one of the best power forwards in the game and one of my favorite players that we've had here.

"But when you're lucky enough to get the No. 1 pick in a draft with a franchise player at the same position, you have to clear a path for him. You have to give him the greatest opportunity for success."

Griffin has always felt the weight of that responsibility. Of living up to it, and of wearing it well. He was prepared to do it alone, too.

But somewhere out there a point guard was watching him on NBA TV and liked what he saw.

This could work, Paul thought. Griffin was good enough. Not yet, but soon enough. He could take him there. He could teach him.

"I'm not arrogant or anything like that," Paul said. "But I like to believe in myself and not go on the history of anything. All I can go on is what's happened since I've been here."

A lot has happened since Paul arrived. Games like Monday night's don't feel so surprising anymore. The Clippers expect to win close ones now. Because instead of waiting for the other shoe to drop, Paul tends to drop a bunch of back-breaking shots at the end of games. It is a new reality, yet it feels entrenched already.

But something new did happen on this night, and it happened sooner than anyone but Paul ever imagined.

Blake Griffin lived up to his burdens. And now the sky really is the limit.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Blake Griffin
PTS AST STL MIN
22.8 4.3 0.7 34.8
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsD. Jordan 13.0
AssistsC. Paul 9.7
StealsC. Paul 1.9
BlocksD. Jordan 2.4