Blake Griffin Earns Respect from LeBron James, Dwyane Wade
MIAMI -- Clippers rookie Blake Griffin made his first appearance in Miami on Sunday a memorable one -- despite his team's 97-79 loss. As is the case in every arena he visits, Griffin managed to simultaneously entertain and infuriate Miami's crowd with his thunderous dunks and relentless hustle.
In one such example, he careened into the sideline photographers trying to save the ball after a botched fast-break opportunity to the roar of the crowd. Yet when he notched an easy breakaway dunk after a Heat turnover, the crowd booed him ferociously as he trotted back on defense. Such is the measure of just how entertaining it is to watch him play in person, one might wonder if the crowd was booing because the Clippers scored or because he didn't attempt a more spectacular dunk.
For Heat stars Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, who have experience in putting on a show on the road with those kind of high-flying plays, it's no coincidence they singled out his explosive athleticism while also respecting how the rest of his game is blossoming.
"He's a phenomenon," Wade said after the game. "When you have as much athletic ability that he has, now he's starting to understand the game more, he's starting to see where he can get other opportunities besides just dunking the ball -- even though he tries to dunk often and that's good, he's aggressive -- but now he's working on his midrange jumper and things of that nature.""When you have that much athletic ability, it gives you a lot of time to get the rest of your game going and to work on it," continued James, who was by Wade's side. "We see what he does athletically, he rebounds, he jumps over guys, he dunks the basketball and he's very aggressive. He continues to hone his skills and making his game a little better; handling the ball, passing out of a double-team, which he's starting to learn now because teams are starting to double-team him. He can be really good, only time will tell, we just got to see it happen."
Griffin led his team with 21 points and 16 rebounds but had little help from the rest of the Clippers' roster, which was missing leading scorer Eric Gordon. Without Gordon -- and with Baron Davis and Randy Foye unable to consistently knock down good looks at the basket -- the Heat's defense was able to safely focus on Griffin and prevent him from dominating the game on single coverage. According to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, that was the plan all along.
"The problem is if you let him get his (points), he'll have all of your bigs in foul trouble," he explained. "For a rookie, it is an amazing statistic that he averages that many free throws. He is such an impact player. You know he is going to put the ball on the floor. You know he's going to get to the rim. There is not a whole lot you can do to stop it. You have to swarm him with multiple defenders."
Out of 50 Clippers games, Blake has failed to notch a double-double in scoring and rebounds only eight times. Without center Chris Kaman, who became hampered by ankle issues only seven games into the season, Griffin has been forced to take on an even larger role in the paint in his first year. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has experience coaching a sensational No. 1 draft pick in his young career and wants to see even more out of his latest rookie.
"Blake is having to shoulder a lot of the load to this point," he admitted before the game. "He has very good ball-handling skills and he is a very good passer so he's harder to double-team. We have to do a better job of picking teams apart when they do double us. He can make the game easier for everybody."
While that strategy worked perfectly for a win in their first game against the Heat in Los Angeles the team struggled from outside in Miami on their way to an abysmal 32.5% field goal percentage with only 25 shots made for the game. With a top-rated Heat defense that smothered him, Griffin may not have willed his team to victory but a game like this still serves as a lesson learned as to how teams are planning for him.
"You just have to give a guy like that space," Heat forward Chris Bosh explained. "He goes to the boards every time and sometimes it's very tough to keep him off because he's so relentless on it. Most of the time you just want to stay between him and the basket.
"You don't want to give up dunks because that's what really gets him going."