When Blake Griffin agreed months ago that he would forego $ 13.3 million to terminate his contract with the Detroit Pistons, he had resigned himself to being no longer a franchisee, physically or mentally.
But that didn’t mean he could no longer be a contributing player in spirit.
He felt like he still had something to give, maybe a couple of years if he was lucky, which, if we’re honest, he wasn’t very often. For that price, in both dollars and ego, he wanted to be happy and play meaningful basketball again.
On Saturday, Griffin took part in a Conference semi-final playoff game for the first time in six years. It felt even longer as those days as the lead cast of the Lob City Clippers seemingly only exist in YouTube highlights.
He played like he’d longed for it, tossing his body around and battling the edge it’ll take the Brooklyn Nets to beat the Milwaukee Bucks four times. Griffin’s 18 points, 14 rebounds and critical plays fueled the Nets over the visiting Bucks 115-107. His presence was particularly sought after after Brooklyn lost James Harden to a hamstring injury just 43 seconds into Game 1.
Towards the end of the fourth quarter, game in hand, the 15,750 crowd at the Barclays Center in New York gave Griffin a standing ovation after he fouled and retired on the bench. It had been a while since he’d felt something like this too.
“I haven’t heard a lot of positives in two years and probably rightly so,” said Griffin. “It’s pretty crazy how crazy it happened so I’m just grateful for this chance and opportunity.”
The last time Griffin was at this stage in 2015, he may have been at the height of his game, at the age of 25 with five straight All-Star appearances and his health intact. In the previous season he had finished third in the MVP voting and in the conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets he was a pure force with an average of 24 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. He found himself at a remarkable sweet spot where his physical skills mingled with the skills he had honed.
In that Game 1 six years later, Griffin relied mostly on the skills he had learned. His physical aptitudes are largely diminished, but he has become a better shot, as demonstrated with four threesomes when the Bucks gave him room. And his role on the team challenged him to fight in the trenches, which he did endlessly for 35 minutes.
“It’s nice to see how he works and perseveres and gets a chance,” said Nets coach Steve Nash. “He was obviously great tonight and his energy and fight were superb.”
One stinging reality about Griffin, say those who have been around him for the past five years, 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 worrying contact were higher on the list – but it was one of them. The headline came when he hit the Clippers equipment manager and Griffin broke his hand, but beneath the surface there have been more incidents with teammates and coaches.
Part of the mission when he came to Brooklyn was to restore respect from teammates. With those like Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Harden, the only room for Griffin was for him to slip into a role and display leadership skills by not only accepting it but highlighting it in it.
In his first few weeks with the team, it wasn’t the future Hall of Famer he shared the locker room with that inspired Griffin. It was teammate Bruce Brown, 24, a guy who came into the league as a guard and sometimes played center when looking for a role to slip into that would 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 needed for this series where they’re overwhelmed in the middle and constantly under attack. Milwaukee still scored 72 points in the color, the third highest score in the playoffs in the past 25 years.
Griffin knows that more challenges lie ahead, especially given the uncertainty of Harden’s Achilles tendon injury; but Griffin also knows where he belongs. Being there so late in the season and so late in his career put him in a place he wanted to be for so long – in ways he might never have expected.
“Being a part of something bigger than yourself takes precedence,” said Griffin. “You do whatever it takes.”