Originally Published: March 10, 2014

How Blake Griffin Could Vault Into MVP Talk

By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

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.

Clippers
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesBlake Griffin wasn't merely dunking his way to a 14-for-16 shooting night in the win over Phoenix.

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.

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