With expectations high, Griffin working to become complete player
Blake Griffin is under more scrutiny now after a flashy and successful rookie year
The Clippers need him to improve his defense and his plummeting foul shooting
His coaches and opposing players have already noticed improvements in his game
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LOS ANGELES -- Blake Griffin's curious answer said plenty about his defensive mindset, if only because the question -- "So how do you see the second season so far?" -- was so generic and non-threatening.
It was a harmless opener to a recent chat with the Clippers' power forward, a chance to check in on the status of his hoops evolution. Still, with flattering evidence of Griffin's game in his favor and all signs pointing to continued elevation in his high-flying career, it was evident that the reigning Rookie of the Year is assuming the worst when it comes to his critics.
"From the outside looking in, a spectator -- or somebody who doesn't come to the games or doesn't really watch them -- might think that I'd be down on this year, but I'm not at all," he said. "Our team, from last year to this year, is so much different. Obviously by our record, we've won [36 games now], and we won 32 in an 82-game season last year, so I've found out that it's easier to score and it's easier to do that stuff on a team that's not as good and when you're not playing in games like these.
"Last year, a lot of games were out of hand and it's different. As far as being efficient, as far as the number of shots taken, and having the ball in my hands, it's all changed. So I don't look at this year and say, 'Man, I haven't done this or haven't done that.' I'll let other people do all that."
No one was accusing him of poor play, but he kept going nonetheless.
"I hear it," he continued. "My friends, they know I like articles and stuff like that for motivation for myself. So I might see every single one that comes out. For me, it's motivation."
In case it wasn't clear, in other words, Griffin isn't feeling like the golden boy these days.
When Griffin discusses Year No. 2 and how it differs from his sensational rookie season, he feels the need to state the obvious: He's thrilled with the Clippers' new-look roster and wants to win, which would seem to mean he's happier now than he was then -- even if it doesn't always appear that way.
Losses aside (50 last season), Griffin's first season was a love fest that anyone with a pulse and a healthy ego would have enjoyed. He was deemed the savior of a woeful franchise and newest darling of the NBA, earning a nightly spot on SportsCenter, a place on the All-Star team and a shiny Slam Dunk Contest trophy to boot.
But the Clippers know what's at stake this time around, how crucial it is that they make a strong statement in the playoffs and set the tone for a 2012-13 campaign that will determine whether Chris Paul -- who is under contract only through next season -- stays and where the franchises goes. All it takes to get a sense of the new landscape is a peek at the Hotel Figueroa near Staples Center, where Paul's towering image is front and center, while Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are at his sides.
"It's a different climate, clearly," said Clippers assistant coach Marc Iavaroni, a former Grizzlies head coach who works with Griffin more than anyone. "The first year is always magical. It was magical for me and I wasn't a phenom.
"But now, suddenly, he's under more scrutiny, higher expectations. He's got a new cast. The next thing for him is to say, 'All right, I want to be productive -- i.e., numbers -- but I've also got to help us win more. So where do I put the bar, where does [coach] Vinny [Del Negro] put the bar, where does Chris put the bar? And the bar has been elevated. It's not just a matter of making the playoffs. It's a question of having momentum going in, and keep searching, keep trying to get home court. I think Blake understands that."
Never mind that the Clippers made the playoffs only four times in the previous 29 years under owner Donald Sterling, with no team finishing higher than sixth in the Western Conference. Or that Griffin is on pace to become just the 16th player in league history to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in his first two seasons and is one of only three players doing it this season (with Orlando's Dwight Howard and Minnesota's Kevin Love). No time for back-patting or celebrating now, especially with all the work Griffin has to do on his game.
"It's not jarring," Griffin said when asked about his second season. "You really just have to get used to it, to adjust to everybody's games because the level of talent, the level of play on the court, is so much different this year than last year. ... It just takes time to adjust."
Of all the changes the Clippers want Griffin to make to his game, defense has become the top priority. He's no longer being asked to preserve his fouls as a way to stay in the game like he was at Oklahoma and during his rookie season, but rather to defend aggressively and intelligently while improving his positioning and awareness. It's a must if the Clippers, who rank 17th in points allowed per possession and 13th in opponents' field-goal percentage, are going to do any damage in the playoffs.
"I think he gets caught up in trying to block shots and being physical," a scout said of Griffin. "The guy moves his feet so well, and sometimes being long is all you need to do. He just relies so much on his athletic ability, and going forward, he has to figure out the rest of the game. Slow it down a little bit, understand the fundamentals. It's a process that takes a little maturing for him.
"He has that ability. Most great offensive players are guys who don't put as much effort in defensively, especially early in their careers. So I think he'll get to that point [of getting better]."
Improving Griffin's post game is a priority as well, but the condensed season has left little time to add to his repertoire. He works mainly with Iavaroni and player development coach Dave Severns, but the Clippers are wary of overdoing it.
"We have a foundation of offseason work to draw upon," Iavaroni said. "We can tweak a few moves, and I can show him a couple of things that are really fun to expose him to ... but if you toss it on top of the schedule and the demands, doing too many things is counterproductive.
"It's a balance of video, a little bit at shootaround, a little bit before a game -- but not too much. Games are routine, about feeling good about what you have, not 'Hey, let me show you what you don't have.' "