Backlash says more about NBA than Blake

April, 8, 2012
4/08/12
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Verrier By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- It took less than 20 seconds, but the two plays produced the only lasting images from a blowout win between a team very much in contention and another very much not.

Eric Bledsoe raced a Sacramento Kings turnover to the other end of the court and lofted up a juicy lob for Blake Griffin, who proceeded to do what Blake Griffin does in times like these: springing up and throwing down. Next play, it was Bledsoe’s turn, as a Chris Paul-forced turnover produced an off-the-backboard alley-oop dunk for the zippy young point guard, sending the crowd into a tizzy and the game into a timeout.

As the benches rose to their feet -- one drunk on adrenaline, the other sobered by another impending defeat -- Griffin ambled to the sideline, his pace as deliberate as his intent, before spinning around and glaring off at the other end of the court, his sight transfixed until a teammate wrapped him up from behind with a bear hug.

The two plays are the lifeblood of these Los Angeles Clippers -- a collection of athletic wonders able to wow in a moment’s notice. But the aftermath is what’s come to define the player who unintentionally coined the term "Lob City" and brought life back to this organization.

The rather insignificant post-slam stroll probably wasn’t picked up by camera crews -- and if it was, it’s long since been lost among all the jubilation shots -- but Griffin’s reactions have slowly become bigger talking points than the plays he makes on the court. (And in a game in which Griffin was probably the best player on the court in the Clippers’ 109-94 victory Saturday, scoring 27 points on 12-for-15 shooting with 14 rebounds, one couldn’t help but miss a play or two while watching the burly power forward’s responses to calls.)

He hasn’t finished his second regular season, but Griffin has already become one of the league’s most electrifying athletes. Yet, after rising up as rookie to become one of the fresh faces of the league, picking up All-Star nods and endorsements and commercials along the way, Griffin has slowly embarked on a heel turn straight out of the WWE playbook (as first noted here).

Griffin still produces aesthetic gold on the court -- the kind of plays that YouTube was made for. And if anything, his highlights have only become more plentiful with Paul around, his dunks only fiercer. But the endearment that his game once elicited has soured some into a sense of entitlement.

When Griffin doesn’t get a call, he will often demonstrably throw his hands up, his mouth agape. When he finishes a particularly forceful dunk, he may shoot back an icy glare ripped straight from a pro-wrestling stare-down or smirk at his opponent as he jogs to the other end of the court. His teammates and coaches have attempted to curb some of his post-call behavior, and it has worked to some degree -- Griffin has, for example, taken to covering his mouth or yelling into his shirt instead of letting his emotions cost him (and his team).

But for the most part, these actions seemed engrained in his game, perhaps the product of the beatings he takes from defenders, a way to fight back from the countless times he goes crashing to the hardwood. And as a result, the witty guy off the court comes off as a little too smug on it.

So even though Griffin has one of the most fan-friendly games, particularly when games are whittled down to 30-second bites, watching him can be a bit grating for fans. And players as well, it seems.

Griffin’s attitude has been a topic of conversation throughout the season, mostly among fans and media, but it came to the forefront this past week, when two separate players took umbrage with his play. First it was Pau Gasol, the latest victim of some of Griffin’s vicious dunks who, along with Lakers coach Mike Brown, bristled when offensive fouls weren’t called on the Clippers forward in the Lakers’ 113-108 victory on Wednesday. And one night later the complaints came from DeMarcus Cousins, who took a more blunt approach: The Kings big man called Griffin an “actor” and told SI.com that referees and the league baby Griffin.

In his first public comments since Cousins’ remarks, Griffin put the humor he shows off in his Kia commercials to use, saying, “I first heard about it from my acting coach, he sent me an email. He was obviously thrilled. It was a compliment. I guess he’s seen some commercials and stuff and I appreciate it.”

Griffin is probably right to just laugh it off and go about his day (although he did manage to lob one back Cousins’ way, noting that “you have to consider the source”). Unless his antics draw whistles, his on-court crankiness does little besides make L.A.’s postseason-bound product a little less appealing to watch.

But Cousins and Gasol aren’t entirely wrong, either: While it’s hard to argue that Griffin is “babied” by refs, given the game-by-game punishment he takes in the post, he certainly benefits from his share of favorable calls (in particular, the one that sent Cousins off the deep end to begin with). And Griffin has made a habit of forcefully dropping his off-hand on some of his more memorable dunks, creating both a way to propel himself higher and return some of the force applied to him on his way up (a natural reaction with unintentional consequences, he’s said in the past).

However, these are only minor squabbles in a season full of them, throughout the league. Their comments certainly put a national spotlight on Griffin’s on-court demeanor -- Cousins’ comments alone overshadowing recent ugly performances by the Heat and Thunder -- but they may end up saying more about how players around the league perceive the rise of young stars like Griffin.

You have to crawl before you walk. You’re supposed to intern before you get that big job. And in basketball, like all other professional sports, you’re supposed to pay your dues. Although he lost his first season to a stress fracture, Griffin’s rise has come faster than few others before him (LeBron, remember, was already a star before he was even drafted). In an industry that’s known for codes of unwritten rules -- rookies, for instance, still must tote backpacks with cartoon characters on them -- that type of meteoric ascent may rub some the wrong way, particularly when the player announces his arrival with firecrackers rather than "earning" some star rights over time, the old-fashioned way.

“A lot of guys would love to be able to do what he does,” Paul said Saturday when I posed the theory to him. “Sometimes it’s other guys competing against him harder because they want that sort of same stature and status that he has. Sometimes it’s jealousy. You never know where it’s coming from.”

And therein another possible explanation: plain ol' envy. Or at least a level playing field.

Cousins certainly isn't the first player to be rubbed the wrong way by Griffin's behavior; less than a month ago, it was was former Kentucky teammate Patrick Patterson who was shelling out 25 large for ripping officials after a run in with Griffin. But it's no real surprise that, while others have made their grumbles away from microphones, Cousins lashed out. And not only because of his now-infamous temper (although, Vegas surely wouldn't have put up odds against him being the first to do so).

In his first two seasons, the 21-year-old Cousins has been painted as an anti-star. More specifically, the anti-Griffin. While Blake's game is easy on the eyes, his high-flying repertoire as Cirque du Soleil as it is sport, the lumbering Kings center's is more plodding, the countless hours of grinding out position in the post far less enjoyable for the every-day fan. And like Griffin, Cousins tends to complain a lot throughout the game; after jacking up midrange shots on the Kings' first two possessions, one made and one missed, Cousins made sure to let the officials know he had been nicked on the arm both times. Only, because of the bad-guy persona that has dogged him since before he stepped foot in the league, Cousins' bellyaching comes off as sharp, as if each outburst only further cements his image as a tyrant.

So while Cousins has quietly turning into one of the league’s best big men this season, with a player efficiency rating (21.87) to back it up, his breakout season has gone relatively unnoticed, a fact owed as much to the miniature market in which he plays as his uneasy image. (It took an up-close look to appreciate it myself.)

Griffin and the Clippers haven’t had that problem since Paul’s arrival.

“We’re on national TV a lot. We’re one of the top draws on the road. We’ve seen it every game now,” Vinny Del Negro said. “So a lot of things have changed -- a lot more exposure, a lot more tension. So maybe that has something to do with it.”

For the record, in each of the two times I’ve run into Cousins -- once before he entered the league and again during this weekend's visit -- he’s been easy to deal with, a guy who doesn’t seem to fit the image most conjure up when they think of the big lug.

But public perception means so much. Griffin certainly knows that now.

“I’ve heard that,” Griffin said with a smile when a reporter noted how polarizing he’s become. “It’s not something I embrace or try to do. It just kind of happens. I’ve seemed to have had a good week as far as that goes.”

You might’ve missed it, but the Clippers’ past two weeks haven’t been so bad, either. After losing three straight on the road and appearing on the brink of collapse, the Clips have strung together eight wins over the past nine games and positioned themselves a half-game behind the third-place Lakers in the Western Conference standings.

Griffin’s bothersome on-court antics will likely continue to irk fans and players alike. But as long as this team keeps rolling, those fun "Lob City" images will be the only ones that matter.
Justin Verrier is an NBA editor at ESPN.com.

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