The Los Angeles Clippers finished the regular season with 51 wins and they enter the postseason as the Western Conference’s fourth seed, set to play the Utah Jazz in the first round.
Even though stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul each missed 21 games due to injuries, the Clippers remained afloat and then played some of their best basketball of the season at the right time. They won 11 of their last 13 games, including victories over the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Utah Jazz and Washington Wizards.
Now in his seventh NBA season, Griffin is producing at the level we’ve come to expect from him. He’s averaging 21.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists and a steal while shooting 49.4 percent from the field and 34.5 percent from three-point range (on a career-high 1.8 attempts per game).
HoopsHype caught up with Griffin to discuss the Clippers’ season, his improved shooting, the upcoming series against the Jazz, his thoughts on the NBA’s MVP race, whether L.A. is being overlooked entering the postseason, how he kept his upcoming free agency from being a distraction and more.
You’re shooting nearly two threes per game and shooting a solid percentage. How much more confident are you with your jump shot now and how does that addition to your game make it easier to attack defenses?
Blake Griffin: I’m definitely more comfortable. I think it’s just from all of the reps I’ve put in over the years. When there’s that much practice time, you’re bound to be more comfortable. But at the same time, Doc [Rivers] talked to me about stepping out to the three-point line and taking a few more threes this year. It was really when I came back from injury, that’s when we talked about that. But I am definitely more comfortable now. I think the best thing it does is it spaces our offense better. It just seems to give us a little bit better pacing, space and rhythm offensively.
You’re one of the best passing big men in the NBA. Has that always come naturally to you, and is it something you still actively work on?
BG: It’s something that I’m always working on. I think the flow of our offense sort of sets it up that way. CP, who I think is the best passer in the NBA, draws so much attention so whenever he draws a double-team, I kind of look at it as me trying to be our secondary playmaker. CP will draw the double-team, hit me and now I have a half-court that’s basically four-on-three, usually with JJ [Redick] spacing in the corner and DJ [DeAndre Jordan] up high. It makes it easy on me and makes it easier for our offense since we have the type of weapons we do. But it’s definitely something that I’m always working on and looking to improve.
You recently tweeted that Russell Westbrook deserves the MVP award. Is Russ’ campaign the best individual season you’ve ever seen?
BG: Yes. It almost blows my mind to think that anybody else could win MVP this year. That’s not taking anything away from James [Harden] and Kawhi [Leonard] and LeBron [James] because they’ve had excellent seasons too, but Russ’ production is crazy. And the things that set it apart are their record when he’s had triple-doubles, his PER and his PER in the clutch. As a player, those are all the things you look for – a player who’s going to make his team better, a player that wins games for you and a player who performs when you need him to. I honestly never thought I’d see someone average a triple-double. That’s why Russ’ run has been so mind-blowing. It takes an insane amount of energy to do that. You have to be involved in everything and have such a high motor.
It definitely seems like you guys are getting hot at the right time. How much confidence and momentum do you guys have entering the playoffs?
BG: I think we’re going in the right direction. March was a rough month, just schedule-wise and win-loss wise. Early on in March, we lost some games that we shouldn’t have. But I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction now. Recently our pace has been great offensively, defensively our rotations have been really good and our trust level is really high. I think when all of those things are clicking together, that’s when we’re playing our best basketball.
When I’ve talked to your teammates, they’ve raved about your work ethic and said people don’t realize just how much time and energy you put into improving your game. How much more room for growth do you feel you have?
BG: I’m not sure. The only way I’ve ever really known how to improve as a player is just through hard work – trying to outwork people and focusing on the things you need to work on. I was talking to someone earlier today and I told them, “The day when I feel like I won’t need to work anymore will never come.” I don’t think you can let yourself get to that point. If you want to achieve great things in this league, you can’t become complacent, you can’t ever think that you’ve “made it.” There’s always an area you can improve.
During the pre-draft process, prospects are always asked which NBA players they study and take things from, but that doesn’t stop once you’re in the league. Which players do you study or try to learn things from when you play against them?
BG: Absolutely. And it’s not just one or two players either. I think you can take something from every player. The more versatile you can be, the better. I might look at, say, James Harden’s timing or footwork when he’s attacking the basket. Another example is Kawhi Leonard; I look at his control and his patience offensively – he’s never sped up, he’s never out of control. There are a lot of guys around the league I try to watch and study – not just bigs, guards too. I’m always looking to pick up something here or there. And, I mean, I’m just a big basketball fan in general and I always will be, so I always watch different guys anyway.
How much has DeAndre Jordan’s development over the last year or two helped you?
BG: It’s been huge, man. He’s always been a big anchor for us defensively and a guy who can catch and finish down low – he put a lot of pressure on teams that way. But he’s gotten better at screening, rolling, running to the rim, sealing guys, posting up and all that. It just gives us another great weapon that defenses have to focus on.
Do you feel that, due to injuries, your team is better than your record indicates?
BG: I think you could look at our schedule and say that. There was a stretch where we lost six in a row when CP and I were both out, and another stretch during that time where we lost some more games. Then, there was another stretch like that when I came back, but CP was out. And even when CP came back and we were all together, we were getting everybody’s legs back underneath them and lost some games. I think if you look at our record, we probably should’ve finished better than we ended up finishing. But at the end of the day, every team deals with injuries and their issues. Now, we move on and focus on the playoffs.
What is your initial assessment of Utah entering your first-round series?
BG: Utah is tough. It’s crazy, we played them in the second game of the year and I distinctly remember being in the locker room and Doc saying, “This is the team that we’re going to have to face in the playoffs.” Every year, there’s that team that you just know is ready to take that next step. I think Utah was that team and they made that step. All of their guys have improved. Gordon Hayward is playing extremely well, Rudy Gobert has taken such a huge step forward. They’ve added some great pieces too. George Hill has been great for them. They’re a really good team. They’re really well-coached and they play hard. Those are the teams that are really fun to play against because, when it comes down to it, it’s just basketball. We have a lot of respect for them.
Is it frustrating that people don’t mention the Clippers more when discussing the contenders? It seems like the West teams we hear about are mainly the Warriors, Spurs and Rockets.
BG: No, I don’t think it matters. I don’t think we really need that. We’ve been together for a while now and had all sorts of different years where we lost in different ways and learned from that. Now, our main goal is to win one game at a time, win one series at a time and just keep moving on.
You mention being together for a while. You guys have more continuity than the three teams above you in the West. Is continuity overlooked and how much of an advantage is that?
BG: I think it helps. I think helps a lot. The start of our season was a good indicator of that. When we were healthy, we started out really hot. I think part of that was just being so familiar with each other. Our entire starting lineup returned, and I think that was the first time we’d had that happen in a while. With CP, JJ, DJ, Luc [Mbah a Moute], Jamal [Crawford], I know all of those guys’ tendencies. It definitely does help and that’s definitely something that we’ll lean on in the playoffs.
What does this team need to do to win a championship this year?
BG: Doc always talks about playing “clutter-free basketball” and, in my mind, that’s just playing free and knowing there are ups and downs throughout the flow of the game, but you don’t let that affect you. Whether you’re up 20 points or you’re down five or you’re up 10 and the other team starts making a run, you’re still playing the same way, playing the right way, and you aren’t phased by anything. You just keep grinding. When we do that, when we’re just playing, we’re at our best. The other night in San Antonio was like that. You go into a game like San Antonio and you know the type of team they are, that they aren’t going to beat themselves, that they’re going to make runs and I thought we did a great job of just sticking with our game, grinding through it and coming away with the win. When we’re playing like that, I think we have a chance against anybody.
You guys have done a great job of not letting free agency become a distraction. With some teams, having one star approaching free agency leads to a circus. This team has two – you and Chris Paul – but it hasn’t seemed to be an issue or distraction. How have you maintained that?
BG: Honestly, our focus has just been on the season. And I know everyone uses that go-to answer, but it’s true. I can’t worry about a decision that I can’t make right now. We still have so much basketball left to play. The playoffs are about to start and this is literally what we spent all last summer, the preseason and the regular season preparing for. We were preparing for this. To be focused on something else would be a travesty to the rest of my team, to my coaching staff, to our fans, to everybody. Those decisions and whatever happens in the summer will be there in the summer.
I was kind of curious what it would be like going into a contract year and playing the season out like that, but it’s no different. It really isn’t. You always see other players go through it [so you wonder what it’s like], but it really hasn’t been different. Our focus has been really good this year.
Have other players tried to recruit you at all? Because while you’re focused on this season, I know that does happen sometimes where guys from other teams will reach out. Without naming names, has anything like that happened?
BG: No, I haven’t had any conversations like that at all. Early on, I told everybody around me – agents, friends and family – that this isn’t something I’m going to be talking about and we’ll deal with it when the time comes. I think player-wise, I think everybody respects that you have a team and you’re focused on the season and all that.
Not just with free agency decisions looming but also with your main core getting older, is there more of a sense of urgency than in the past?
BG: We’ve gotten that question before and I never want to say there’s more of a sense of urgency because we’ve always had a sense of urgency to win. If you’re waiting for age or contract situations or whatever it may be to have that sense of urgency, then I think you already have your answer as to why you haven’t won. It’s always been there. It’s definitely a thought; I mean, no one is stupid. Everybody knows the situation – how old guys are, how young guys are, what guys’ contracts are like – but there’s always that sense of urgency. I don’t think the other circumstances necessarily matter.