Blake Griffin was multitasking as the Clippers flew across the southern tier of the country last Saturday night, playing a game of cards with teammates while simultaneously watching game film.
On his iPad, Griffin reviewed a catalog of defensive possessions from the game in Houston just hours before, a 107-94 Clippers win. Every two minutes or so, Griffin came across a snippet that either signaled progress or areas for improvement. He would pause the clip, rewind, then play it back for DeAndre Jordan, sometimes more than once. After the viewing, they’d exchange thoughts about the play. Were the two big men in the right spot as the play materialized? Was the timing of their rotation precise? And if not, was it because someone was late to anticipate the action, or was the mistake a result of bad communication, or was it just a busted play?
It’s not as if Griffin has never watched film on a team flight or bus ride, but studying occupies a more prominent place in the daily culture of the team this season. A botched defensive possession is now something that warrants the interruption of a card game for a quick chat.
“This is something that’s evolved,” Griffin said. “And we take a lot of pride in that.”
Virtually everyone around the Clippers readily admits that on the process-result continuum, the Clippers -- and Griffin, individually -- still sit squarely in the beginning of the process phase. When Doc Rivers’ Celtics assembled the Big Three in 2007, the defense jelled on opening night and never faltered. By New Year's, the Celtics had developed a distinct defensive choreography that would soon be appropriated by a third of the league.
The Clippers have experienced moments of perfection at their training facility, a glimpse of how the project is going to look when it comes to fruition.
“We do it sometimes in practice, and we get it exactly where we want it,” Griffin said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
But right now, the 2013-14 Clippers aren't the 2007-08 Celtics. This season's Clippers rank 28th in defensive efficiency, though the starting lineup is giving up only 99.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank them 10th overall in the league.
Whether because he’s less rangy, less obsessive or a lot younger than Kevin Garnett (who was in his 13th season when he arrived in Boston), Griffin is simply going to need more time to master the system, and by many accounts the process is moving along. He's the power forward in that defensively sturdy starting lineup. Overall, the team is 14 points better defensively with him on the floor. While some of that might be an indictment on Byron Mullens or the team’s small-ball D when Griffin is on the bench, it isn't just that.
On the flip side, opponents are shooting 53.7 percent at the rim when Griffin is within five feet of the goal and within five feet of the player shooting the ball. The figure for the median starting big man is right about 50 percent. When he’s on the floor, players shoot 71 percent in the restricted area, a high total for a starting big man.
The full laugh track was in effect as Griffin made light of his reputation as a non-defender at the press conference after Monday night’s win over Minnesota. At the same time, the perception bothers Griffin, most notably because it’s often accompanied with the suggestion that he’s not fully vested in the craft of defense, or isn't willing to do the grunt work to become an elite defender. Preparation is a point of pride for Griffin. His workout schedule, nutrition, the amount of time he spends with shooting coach Bob Thate -- all of it is in service of doing this pro basketball thing the right way. So Griffin offers another theory.
"Honestly, I didn't know a lot of things I should’ve known during my first three years,” Griffin said. “I really do feel like I've gotten a little bit better each year. This year, it’s one of those things where I feel like when we’re on defense, I can affect the game.”
I really do feel like I've gotten a little bit better each year. This year, it’s one of those things where I feel like when we’re on defense, I can affect the game.
”-- Blake Griffin
The aforementioned “beautiful thing” Griffin experienced in practice is the fluid, almost balletic way Rivers’ Tom Thibodeau-influenced, strong-side pressure defense appears when it’s firing on all cylinders. Most NBA defenses look to avoid rotations -- think San Antonio, Memphis, Indiana to a great extent -- because many open looks in the half court are the result of botched rotations.
In contrast, Rivers’ defense aims to exert more pressure on the strong side of the court, and is willing to absorb rotations to do it. This can be risky because it introduces another layer of decision-making into the defensive process. Applying pressure requires a guy to leave his primary assignment to overload, which means someone has to account for his man.
“If we overload one side and the ball gets swung, someone has to take off running,” Griffin said. “Then somebody else has to be there to contest the shot. A team might get a shot, but it’s hurried and they don’t get the shot they want. That’s what we’re going for.”
Being a help defender represents a far greater slice of a player’s overall responsibilities under Rivers. It’s a different kind of scheme for Griffin, but the vibe around the team is entirely different this season. There’s a sense that problems can be solved, which has produced an interesting combination of concern and optimism, with a strong leaning toward the latter.
“Almost everything feels completely different,” Griffin said. “Obviously it’s the same facility, the same Staples Center, the same jerseys. But the atmosphere in practice, walking into the arena, it’s way different.”
Griffin constantly returns to the idea of learning and learnedness. Idle conversations are much more likely to be shop talk, and even though the topics Rivers hits aren't necessarily new, the themes have more staying power and feel like part of a larger creed.
“It’s kind of a weird thing because [Rivers] is saying things I, most of the time, already know,” Griffin said. “But he puts it in a way where I completely, 100 percent understand -- and it sticks with you.”
One of the earliest conversations Griffin had with Rivers was about his offensive portfolio. Griffin’s size and speed are a matchup nightmare. He’s faster than most opposing power forwards, but can back down stretchy, new-era 4s. Give him space at mid-range and he’s increasingly comfortable taking that jumper. Soon after taking the job in Los Angeles, Rivers spoke to Griffin about being more selective with his game, specifically about identifying the nature of the mismatch.
“That was one of the first things [Rivers] talked to me about when he first got the job,” Griffin said. “I was in the facility one day working out and he said, 'I want you to keep shooting, and when you’re in the post, keep working on your post moves. But I want you to face guys up. I don’t think there are many guys who can guard you when you face up.'"
Last season, 35 percent of Griffin’s offensive possessions were classified as post-ups by Synergy. This season, that’s dropped to 23 percent. In place of those times when Griffin called out for the ball on the block are spot-up opportunities, middle pick-and-rolls and isolation sets in which Griffin hops on an island against a bulkier big man and does his thing.
"That’s something I’m trying to mix in a lot," Griffin said. "At the same time, it depends game to game. Like against the Rockets, when Dwight [Howard] or Omer Asik is on me, I’m going to face up. But when they put Omri Casspi on me, I’m going to try to back him down. It’s about learning to truly use the mismatches.”
The increased selectivity is bearing out in Griffin’s shooting numbers from the floor. His effective field goal percentage of 57.9 percent far exceeds his career best of 55 percent two seasons ago. His assist numbers are down a bit, but he’s also encountering fewer double-teams because J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley merit the defense’s attention behind the arc. The shooting wings have contributed to a slight drop in Griffin’s usage rate this season, but rebounding numbers are up while turnovers are down.
Tensions have existed in Griffin’s game and persona since he arrived in the league: force and finesse, irony and earnestness, monastic discipline off the floor versus showmanship on it. Imagining what Blake Griffin: The Final Product will look like is a fascinating exercise, one reason his evolution as a player never seems to be progressing quickly enough for many. It’s a subtle, slow reveal for an athlete who so often seems larger than life.