Months ago, when Blake Griffin came to terms that he was going to forgo $13.3 million to get out of his contract with the Detroit Pistons, he had come to terms with the fact that he was no longer a franchise player in body or mind.
But that did not mean he could no longer be a contributing player in spirit.
He felt he had something left to give, maybe a couple of years if he’s lucky, which he hasn’t been very often if we’re being honest. For that price, in both dollars and ego, what he wanted was happiness and to play meaningful basketball again.
On Saturday, Griffin competed in a conference semifinal playoff game for the first time in six years. It felt even longer, as those days as a leading man of the Lob City Clippers seem like they only exist in YouTube highlights.
He played like he’d longed for it, flinging his body around and battling with the edge the Brooklyn Nets will need to beat the Milwaukee Bucks four times. Griffin’s 18 points, 14 rebounds and critical hustle plays fueled the Nets over the visiting Bucks 115-107. His presence was especially needed after Brooklyn lost James Harden to a hamstring injury just 43 seconds into Game 1.
Late in the fourth quarter with the game in hand, the crowd of 15,750 at Barclays Center in New York gave Griffin a standing ovation after he fouled out and retreated to the bench. It had been a while since he’d felt something like that too.
“For two years, I didn’t hear much positivity and probably rightfully so,” Griffin said. “It’s pretty crazy how crazy it happened, so I’m just thankful for this chance and the opportunity.”
The last time Griffin was at this stage, in 2015, he was perhaps at the peak of his game, at age 25 with five straight All-Star appearances and his health intact. He had finished third in the MVP voting the season before, and in the conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets, he was a pure force, averaging 24 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. He was at a remarkable sweet spot, where his physical gifts were blending with the skills he had honed.
In this Game 1 six years later, Griffin was mostly relying on those skills he had learned. His physical gifts are largely diminished, but he has become a better shooter, as he showed by nailing four 3s as the Bucks gave him space. And his role on the team called for him to battle in the trenches, which he did endlessly for 35 minutes.
“It’s beautiful to see him work and persevere and get an opportunity,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “He obviously was great tonight, and his energy and fight was outstanding.”
A prickly reality about Griffin, those who were around him over the past five years say, is that he wasn’t a very good teammate, at times. It wasn’t the only reason the Clippers traded him — his injury history and worrisome contact were higher on the list — but it was one of them. The headline came when he punched out the Clippers’ equipment manager and Griffin broke his hand, but below the surface, there were more incidents with both teammates and coaches.
Part of the mission when he joined Brooklyn was to restore respect from teammates. With ones such as Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Harden, the only room for Griffin was that he fall into 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 future Hall of Famers he shared the locker room with who inspired Griffin. It was 24-year-old teammate Bruce Brown, a guy who came into the league as a guard and ended up playing center, at times, as he looked for a role to slip into that would support the group.
That is what Griffin did in Game 1, a long way from the 2015 superstar or even the 2019 All-Star. But his contributions were exactly what the Nets needed for this series, in which they are outmanned in the middle and will be under 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 Griffin also knows where he fits. Being there this late in the season and this late in his career has him in a place he has wanted to be for so long — in a way he maybe never expected.
“Being a part of something bigger than yourself takes precedence,” Griffin said. “You do whatever it takes.”