LOS ANGELES -- When Chris Paul went down over a month ago because of a separated right shoulder, Doc Rivers said the next 20 games would be an opportunity for the Los Angeles Clippers to grow and mature as a team.
He didn't single out any individual players. If the Clippers were going to survive this period without a dip in the standings, every player would have to pick up the slack and play a little bit better than they had before.
In the case of Blake Griffin, it has meant vaulting himself into the MVP conversation and into the superstar status he may have held because of his dunks and commercials but can now rightfully claim behind a well-rounded, dominant game that has unquestionably made him one of the top players in the NBA.
"I expected greatness," Rivers said when asked his expectation for Griffin. "But he's done things we didn't know he could do as well, and clearly we're taking advantage of him in the open court with the ball. That's something we didn't know he could do and now we know he can do. We'll be better when Chris comes back because we'll have two guys now that you can outlet the ball to and that makes us really good as far as in our transition game."
When Paul went down against the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 3, Griffin knew Paul would be out awhile as he left the court in pain and threw his mouthpiece on the floor after talking to the trainers. The Clippers were down by seven points with less than four minutes left in the fourth quarter and came back and won the game after a meeting of the minds between Griffin and Jamal Crawford, who has solidified himself as the favorite to win the Sixth Man of the Year award during this stretch without Paul.
"In Dallas, me and Blake kind of looked at each other and understood what it meant," Crawford said. "We didn't know how long [Paul would be out] at that time, but we understood what it meant."
Griffin recalls that conversation as well when asked to pinpoint a turning point in this run he has had.
"I talked to Jamal in that game against Dallas," Griffin said. "We realized how serious it was. We both acknowledged that we have to pick it up. It's about being more aggressive, carrying a little bit more of the scoring load. But at the same time be a facilitator when I need to and keep the offense going smoothly."
After scoring 36 points against the Raptors on Friday, Griffin became the first Clippers player since the team moved to Los Angeles to score that many points in three consecutive games.
Griffin has scored more than 25 points in 14 of his last 16 games, averaging 28.3 points, which is the fourth-best average in the NBA in that span. Going up against LeBron James on Wednesday, Griffin became the only player this season with a stat line of at least 43 points, 15 rebounds and six assists.
"This stretch has been what has taken him to another level," Crawford said. "He's been incredible. To see a young guy like that work so hard. I didn't know that about him before I came here, but he's our hardest worker. He wants to get better, he wants to be great. He wants to be an all-time great."
Since Dec. 16, Griffin has averaged 26.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists while hitting 53.9 percent of his shots from the field and 71.9 percent from the free-throw line. Without Paul, the Clippers have not only remained one of the top four seeds in the West but have increased their winning percentage and decreased the gap between them and the top three teams in the conference.
Griffin's improvement from the free-throw line has made him more aggressive. He's no longer afraid to draw contact and get sent to the line. He looks forward to it. He has attempted at least 10 free throws in each of the last five games.
"Man, that guy is amazing," teammate Willie Green said of Griffin. "He makes his mind up that he's just going to be dominant and there's nothing that anybody can do. [We] put a lot on his shoulder right now and he's carrying us."
It's not as if Griffin wasn't already one of the best players in the league before this season. He is going to his fourth consecutive All-Star game later this month and was putting up superstar numbers, but he has turned a corner this season. He is the only player in the NBA in the last 11 years to average at least 23 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and shoot at least 50 percent from the field. Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal are the only other players to do so over a decade ago.
Aside from arrival of Rivers and expanding his game in the absence of Paul, sometimes it's easy to forget Griffin doesn't turn 25 until next month and is still in his fourth season in the league.
"I just call it growth," Rivers said. "Blake is 24. He's spectacular right now. He's one of the best players in the league and he's going to get a lot better still. That's a scary thought."