- Johnette Howard, ESPN Staff Writer
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To hear the advice that's been flying at Blake Griffin for weeks now about whether he should punch someone already -- why does he allow himself to be a piñata for the foul-crazy brutes who object to his scoring by doing everything short of throwing him down a flight of stairs? -- you'd think he was the NBA's Gandhi. What restraint. What perspective. What selfless temperance it takes for the Clippers' star to hold his fists. Let's hear it for Blake Griffin, Pacifist.
A man too selfless and indispensable to his team to haul off and make someone spit out his teeth just to enjoy some frontier justice.
It's not often an offensive player is reputed to be the most loathed man in the league among his peers. Yet Griffin gets treated like that a lot.
He has flipped the script.
In the NBA, crackerjack defenders are usually seen as the grating ones. The Spurs' Bruce Bowen was constantly accused of dirty tricks. Dikembe Mutombo used to wave his finger like a windshield wiper after he blocked a shot, unbothered that he rarely made a bucket himself. Dennis Rodman would happily belly up to players 50 or 60 pounds heavier and take a forearm to the chops -- a charging foul that slammed him to the floor -- anything to stop his man. Then he'd pop up, clapping and nodding and sprint upcourt.
But scorers -- especially human highlight reels such as Griffin? They're usually treated with awe and deference. Griffin is easily the league's most exciting dunker since Vince Carter, and he has the endorsements to prove it. He stands 6-foot-10, 250 pounds and has a freakish vertical leap. But nobody's given him a felicitous nickname like Half Man, Half Amazing.
When Clippers point guard Chris Paul was sidelined with a separated shoulder the first week of January, the sprawl of the schedule that lay just ahead was seen as a six-week screen test for Griffin. Questions were asked: Was the power forward, playing his fourth NBA season, ready to be the team's leader in Paul's absence? Could Griffin, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft, carry the team and keep the Clippers in the hunt in the wildly competitive Western Conference?
Griffin responded by playing some of the best all-around basketball this side of LeBron James. He has now scored 20 or more points in 28 consecutive games, and the Clippers have won 20 of them. His stat line Monday against Denver was typical: 26 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
He now handles the ball like a playmaker on fast breaks instead of just finishing them with rim-rattling slams. He's developed a mid-range jumper defenders have to respect. Along the way, the surging Clippers have been transformed from a team that was given a puncher's chance to win the West to a legitimate NBA title contender.
And yet, while Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant seems universally admired and Golden State sharpshooter Stephen Curry is seen as a canny, saucer-eyed assassin, cute as some plush toy you win at a carnival, Griffin has had run-ins or takedowns this season alone with Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka, Phoenix's P.J. Tucker, Miami's Greg Oden, Denver's Kenneth Faried and numerous Warriors.
And his treatment has not been seen as the usual stuff that happens in the flow of the game.
Griffin has heard that his peers think he preens and showboats too much. Or that they try to bait him into trouble because it's nigh impossible to stop him otherwise. During a November game against Golden State, the Warriors' David Lee used a pause in play to scream at Griffin, "STOP FLOPPING!" On Christmas Day, Griffin suffered a flagrant elbowing foul from the Warriors' Draymond Green and then was ejected moments later for getting a second technical after getting smacked in the face by the Warriors' Andrew Bogut.
Informed that Griffin had ripped it as "cowardly basketball" after the game, Warriors coach Mark Jackson told reporters, "We like them. Merry Christmas."
You have to go a long way back -- all the way to Reggie Miller, really -- to find a star offensive player who was this maligned or disliked for his antics. Miller, even more than Griffin, was also accused of exaggerating contact. He would give a whole arena the choke sign, or stare down the first five rows of fans after he made a long ball, as if to say, "Aren't I magnificent?" The Knicks' Patrick Ewing has flatly said "I hated him," and John Starks was driven so mad he head-butted Miller in a 1993 playoff game. ESPN's 30 for 30 film "Winning Time" highlighted how adept Miller was at trash-talking.
And yet, when a member of the Pacers' organization was asked Wednesday if he could ever remember Miller initiating a fight to stand up for himself, the man looked at me as if I were a three-headed pony and scoffed, "Please." Then, after a thoughtful pause, he added, "I take that back. Reggie did get in one of those silly little slap fights with Kobe Bryant once, early in Kobe's career." Then he demonstrated by daintily pawing at the air like a cat mauling a scratch post.
Miller, like most great scorers before him, knew hard fouls were all part of the gig. He was built like a stick figure and was every bit as important to his team as Griffin is, and yet it's difficult to remember any of Miller's coaches complaining about defenders mistreating him like Clippers head coach Doc Rivers does for Griffin, let alone a teammate griping about having to defend him, like Matt Barnes seemed to do on Twitter after Griffin's incident with Ibaka.
Rivers has said the league and its officials too often look the other way when Griffin is mugged.
But here's the thing: "It's true," Indiana head coach Frank Vogel said with a laugh Wednesday. "We all know Blake gets more hard fouls than anybody in the league. But there's a reason for that. The guys that are guarding him don't want to get dunked on and end up on SportsCenter."
Griffin has drawn a league-high 516 fouls, 67 more than Houston's Dwight Howard, who is in second place.
If the Pacers and Clippers play each other in the NBA Finals, Vogel may regret admitting some maulings of Griffin go unpunished.
Then again, Griffin will be even more unlikely to retaliate in the postseason.
"Just to do something stupid, to get kicked out, to get suspended, doesn't help," Griffin told reporters after his March 11 incident with the Suns' Tucker.
Griffin knows the best thing he can do is keep playing as well as he has been. It hasn't gone unnoticed.
He was actually asked this week whether he thinks he's vaulted into the MVP race with Durant and James, and he accurately said he still sees it as a two-man race between them.
But if MVP stands for Most Vilified Player in the NBA, then Griffin is The Man.
"You just take it as another tactic," he said. "And you move on."
He gets it.
Playing great is still the best haymaker he can throw.