Months ago, when Blake Griffin agreed that he was going to give up $ 13.3 million to terminate his contract with the Detroit Pistons, he accepted the fact that he was no longer a franchise player in body or mind.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t be a contributing player in spirit anymore.
He felt like he had something left to give, maybe a couple of years if he’s lucky, which he hasn’t had very often if we’re honest. For that price, both in dollars and in ego, what he wanted was happiness and a meaningful basketball game again.
On Saturday, Griffin played in a Playoff conference semifinal for the first time in six years. It felt even better, as those days as leader of the Lob City Clippers seem like they only existed in YouTube highlights.
He played how he wanted, moving his body and playing with the advantage the Brooklyn Nets will need to beat the Milwaukee Bucks in four games. Griffin’s 18 points, 14 rebounds and critical plays contributed to the Nets surpassing the Bucks, 115-107.
At the end of the fourth quarter, game in hand, the crowd of 15,750 fans at the Barclays Center gave Griffin a standing ovation after he fouled and retired to the bench. It had been a while since he too felt something like that.
“For two years, I didn’t hear a lot of positivity and probably rightly so,” Griffin said. “It’s pretty crazy how crazy that happened, so I’m grateful for this opportunity and the opportunity.”
The last time Griffin was at this stage, he was perhaps at the top of his game in 2015, at age 25 with five consecutive All-Star appearances and his health intact. He had finished third in MVP voting the previous season, and in the conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets he was a pure force, averaging 24 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. He was in this remarkable sweet spot, where his physical gifts mingled with the skills he had honed.
In this Game 1, six years later, Griffin relied primarily on the skills he had learned. His physical gifts have greatly diminished, but he has become a better shooter, as he demonstrated by nailing four 3-pointers when the Bucks gave him room. And his role on the team forced him to fight in the trenches, which he did non-stop for 35 minutes.
“It’s beautiful to see him work, preserve and have a chance,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “He was obviously great tonight and his energy and fighting were outstanding.”
A thorny reality about Griffin, those around him for the past five years say, is that he was not a very good teammate at times. It wasn’t the only reason the Clippers traded him – his worrying contact and injury history were higher on the list – but he was one of them.
And part of the mission when he arrived in Brooklyn was to restore the respect of his teammates. With the likes of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden, the only space for him was to take on a role and show leadership by not just accepting it, but excelling in it.
In his first weeks with the team, it wasn’t the Hall of Famers he shared the locker room with that inspired Griffin. It was his 24-year-old teammate Bruce Brown, a boy who came to the league as a guard and ended up playing center on occasions, while looking for a role in which to support the group.
That’s what Griffin did in Game 1, a far cry from the 2015 Superstar or even the 2019 All-Star. But his contributions were exactly what the Nets need in this series, where they are outmatched in the middle and will be under. a constant attack. Milwaukee still scored 72 points in the paint, the third-highest amount in the Playoffs in the past 25 years.
Griffin knows there are more challenges ahead, particularly with the uncertainty of Harden’s hamstring injury, but he also knows where he fits. Being there so late in the season and so late in his career has him in a place that he has wanted for so long. In a way you may never have expected.
“Being a part of something bigger than yourself takes priority,” Griffin said. “Do whatever it takes.”