How Blake Griffin Could Vault Into MVP Talk
LOS ANGELES -- Save a spot at the Most Valuable Player table for Blake Griffin. Right now he's still sitting with the rest of the audience, not up on the dais with Kevin Durant and LeBron James, but that changes if Griffin somehow gets the Los Angeles Clippers to the best record in the NBA. Then he would deserve to be the one making an acceptance speech.
For now, Griffin is jostling with Joakim Noah for the right to be the man next to the man next to the man. (If James Harden and Dwight Howard could submit a combined entry, they'd be up there, too.) I'm inclined to give Griffin that third spot because his Clippers have won 10 more games than Noah's Chicago Bulls after the Clippers held on for a 112-105 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Monday night.
Griffin doesn't like to do much talking about his value. He mentions it only in the context of his reluctance to swing back when he's pushed, pulled or punched, as was the case Monday night when he locked up with Suns forward P.J. Tucker, fell on top of him and then caught a Tucker right jab. Tucker was ejected, Griffin remained in the game, and that's his response to those who should say he needs to provide his own deterrents to physicality.
"Just to do something stupid, to get kicked out, to get suspended, doesn't help," Griffin said. "We already have injuries, we already have guys who are banged up. We don't need that."
Monday night, it was the first quarter when Griffin shined, scoring 22 points by making 8 of 9 shots and all six free throws. He had 29 points by halftime and 37 in the game before he fouled out with 3:23 left. In a reminder of how important Griffin has become, the recently acquired Danny Granger replaced him and missed as many shots in the remaining time as Griffin missed all game: two.
The shot chart served as a progress report on Griffin's improved shooting range. His stellar 14 for 16 from the field, including 8-for-8 on shots from 13 feet and beyond.
His only misses from the field came when he had a layup blocked into the court-side seats by Miles Plumlee and when he couldn't corral a lob above the rim.
At one point, Griffin made back-to-back bank shots reminiscent of Tim Duncan, the shots Clippers coach Doc Rivers said he sees Griffin practice long before the Clippers take the floor at their gym.
"He just works on his game and he's getting the payment," Rivers said. "He's putting in a lot of deposits, and now he's getting some cash back."
Cash money. That's one attribute of an MVP. I define it as the player who did the most to make his team elite. Durant had the Thunder up near the top even though Russell Westbrook missed 30 games; the Thunder were 22-8 without Westbrook, a winning percentage of .733. As spectacular as LeBron has been at times, the Heat have a winning percentage of .625 when Dwyane Wade sits out. That pace would give them the eighth-best record in the NBA over the course of the season.
It speaks to the San Antonio Spurs' team-wide approach that they have the best record in the league without a top MVP candidate. And, yes, it speaks to Noah's effort that the Bulls had only Derrick Rose for 10 games before he was lost for another season with another injury, and they traded away Luol Deng for a player they promptly waived. But the Clippers have had their starting backcourt of Chris Paul and J.J. Redick in place for only 16 games this season, yet they're still within 2½ games of the overall leader, the Spurs. They didn't have Redick and Jamal Crawford on Monday night, and Griffin started off as if he would make up for their combined 34 points per game on his own.
It was their 13-6 record while Paul was out with a shoulder injury when Griffin both flourished and carried the Clippers. He showed that you can run the offense through him, or that he can initiate the offense himself by bringing the ball upcourt. He can get key buckets in the fourth quarter. Of late, his greatest quality has been his consistency. This was Griffin's 23rd consecutive game with at least 20 points, the second-longest streak in the NBA this season behind Durant's 36-and-counting.
That stat is one of the reasons I still consider Durant the leader. But just as LeBron's post-All-Star surge brought him back into play, the Clippers' eight-game winning streak forces Griffin into the conversation. It also brings the Clippers to within sniffing distance of the league's best record, right up there with the pack of the Heat, Pacers, Thunder and Rockets, who are all within 2½ games or closer of the Spurs.
Griffin is erasing the doubts I had about his ability to fulfill the true test of a superstar: to single-handedly lead his team to a playoff victory. That's a challenge to be met once the postseason begins. The Most Valuable Player is a reward for regular-season accomplishment. If Griffin gets his team to the top of the heap, that would be an accomplishment worth an award.
2. Around the Association
MVP: Al Jefferson finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and three steals, and carried the Bobcats' offense early. Jefferson continued his terrific season by leading his team to an important win.
X factor: While the majority of both teams' benches struggled to do anything positive, Gary Neal finished with 19 points on 7-of -9 shooting, including 3-for-3 from 3. It was much needed offense while Jefferson and Kemba Walker rested.
LVP: Wilson Chandler is supposed to be the second-best player for the Nuggets. He scored nine points in the first quarter and nothing after, finishing with those nine points on 3-for-13 shooting. Denver needed way more.
MVP: LeBron James flirted with a triple-double, but Chris Bosh finished with 22 points, which included a personal 5-0 run late in the fourth to put Miami up by a comfortable 91-84 margin. Bosh was 10-for-14 from the floor with seven rebounds.
X factor: Miami shot 47.6 percent from 3-point range on 21 attempts. Bosh, James, Shane Battier and Ray Allen combined to finish 10-for-16 from deep.
That was ... not very free: Despite driving hard to the basket for much of the first half, James failed to get to the free throw line for the second consecutive game. He wasn't alone, however. The only Miami starter who attempted a free throw was Dwyane Wade (6-for-6).
MVP: Brandon Knight. Knight bullied his way to the hoop for 24 points and passed out six assists. He even turned the tables on the one-year anniversary of DeAndre Jordan dunking on him, soaring high for a tomahawk slam.
That was ... a nice return: In his first game back after an ankle injury, Victor Oladipo turned in a solid outing. Coming off the bench, Oladipo scored 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting, including a pair of 3-pointers.
X factor: Both Knight and Ramon Sessions (16 points, 8 assists) penetrated to the rim repeatedly in the second half, resulting in shots at the rim and better open looks for their teammates. Orlando had just two blocks overall and none in the second half.
MVP: With Carmelo Anthony still lagging physically due to a lingering cold, Amar'e Stoudemire had a much-needed throwback performance: a season-high-tying 23 points on 9-for-10 shooting and a slew of thunderous dunks off pick-and-rolls.
X factor: Raymond Felton has had a nightmarish season, but in the middle of the third quarter, as the Knicks' offense ground to a halt, Felton netted seven big points to keep Philadelphia at bay.
Defining moment: A Sixers squad that had lost 17 in a row was hanging around, partly due to a sloppy, intermittently lackadaisical effort from New York, when the Knicks exploded on a 19-4 run over the first 4:23 of the fourth quarter to push the lead to an insurmountable 21 points.
MVP: Kyle Lowry did everything in his power to win this game for his Raptors. He nearly netted his second triple-double in as many days, scoring 21 points, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out seven assists. He also drew three charges.
X factor: Paul Pierce scored only 15 points in the game, but he did nab four steals -- including one on Terrence Ross in the final minute while the Nets were up just one -- and kept the Raptors' defense off balance by driving into the paint. The Raptors' bigs could not match Pierce's quickness on the perimeter.
That was ... playoff-like: There's a very distinct possibility of these two teams squaring off in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, and both teams put on quite a show. The frenzied crowd upped the intensity and helped propel the veteran-laden Nets over the youthful Raptors. Could this be the case in the playoffs as well? We'll have to see.
3. Monday's Best
Blake Griffin, Clippers: Made 14 of 16 shots en route to 37 points. Before fouling out, he got into a tussle with P.J. Tucker that led to the latter's ejection in a 112-105 win for the Clippers over the Suns.
4. Monday's Worst
Philadelphia 76ers: The 17th straight loss by the foremost tankers, 123-110 to the Knicks, at least comes with a silver lining: The Bucks won, leaving the Sixers just two games ahead/behind the team with the worst record/best lottery chance. Unless the Sixers beat the Kings on Wednesday, the streak appears headed for 22 with ease.
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6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"Blake gets hit as much as anyone in the league. We have all seen it. It gets old. It really does."
-- Clippers coach Doc Rivers, on the physicality directed at Blake Griffin.
8. Wade's Back-To-Back
9. Stat Check
LeBron James scored 23 points, while Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh added 22 apiece in the Heat's 99-90 win over the Wizards. It was the second time each of the Big Three produced a point total no more than one point above or below his other two teammates. On Nov. 27, 2010, in a loss at Dallas, James, Wade and Bosh each, coincidentally, scored the exact same number of points as they did on Monday night.
Neither James nor Bosh went to the free throw line; they became the second pair of teammates this season to each make at least 10 field goals in a game and not attempt a free throw. The other was Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson against Houston on Jan. 16.
James has not attempted a foul shot in either of the past two games. The only other time in his pro career that he did not go to the foul line in back-to-back games was as a rookie in December 2003, in his 19th and 20th games as an NBA player.
10. TrueHoop TV
Around the Association
MVP: In his first game back in Utah, Paul Millsap led the Hawks' effort with 23 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Millsap had spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Jazz.
X factor: Kyle Korver, who, like Millsap, is a former Jazzman. Korver had 26 points on the night and is 7-for-7 from behind the arc over the Hawks' past two games; not a bad response to his 3-point streak being broken.
Defining moment: Utah held a 96-93 lead late in the fourth, but then the Hawks went on an 8-0 run powered by Korver and DeMarre Carroll. From there, the Jazz were essentially forced to play the fouling game to try to stay within reach of the Hawks.
MVP: Blake Griffin had 29 points in the first half and finished with 37 for the night. He hit jumper after jumper and was able to score no matter how many defenders or elbows the Suns threw his way.
Defining moment: A scuffle between PJ Tucker and Griffin became a shoving match on the ground. Tucker was ejected. Griffin fouled out two minutes later. The Suns cut a 14-point lead to four before ultimately succumbing.
That was ... exhausting. The Clippers ran early and built a 25-point lead. The Suns fought hard to turn a sure blowout into a #LeaguePassAlert-worthy game down the stretch. This game was an honest-to-goodness battle.