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This, more than anything, is what other players, past and present, respect about Griffin: He plays really, really hard. Young stars typically need to be cut down to size by the establishment, whether it's Michael Jordan being frozen out at the All-Star Game or Vince Carter being typecast as a lackadaisical showboat, but the elders respect Griffin because, quite simply, he plays his ass off. Sure, he is only a mediocre defender at the moment, but he clearly wants to win. (Iavaroni, a starting forward on the Sixers' 1983 title team, compares his drive with Larry Bird's or Jordan's.) Accordingly, blessings have come from everyone from Kobe Bryant ("He ran right through us; we didn't have anybody that could put up a stand") to Charles Barkley ("He's bigger than me and more explosive than me").
Another common sentiment: Just wait until he learns how to really play. When Griffin gets the ball in the post, it's usually on the left block and he's usually looking to face up and go. (That slow-motion pump-fake still works.) If given space he'll shoot the 15-footer, preferably off the glass, though his shot is definitely a work in progress; for the season he is shooting 31.8% on jumpers. Still, Griffin knows he needs to add the J to his arsenal to be a complete player. He says his eventual goal is to become as dangerous as Carmelo Anthony on the wing; given the choice of stealing any player's move, he opts for Anthony's first-step rip-through or first-step spin-back.
Most of the time, though, Griffin heads right toward the basket at full speed, often appearing to leap with only a hope that a shot presents itself. Then again, if one doesn't, he just gets the ball to the glass and pursues his own rebound. Often enough he gets it. As of week's end he's on pace to be the first rookie to average 20/10 since Elton Brand in 2000.
Griffin's preferred finish, of course, is above the rim, though he is more rigid than most in his definition of what qualifies as dunking on someone. "I only count the ones where the advantages are the same," he says. "You're both there, and you both have time to jump." (For the purposes of the NBA List, I have counted every time his dunk is contested by someone at close range; the Lifetime List is, by its nature, more of an exercise in approximation, with me playing the role of Jimmy Olsen to his heroics.) Though Griffin tries to remain stoic on the court, he admits he does enjoy the chalk outlining. "The best part is if you dunk on someone at home and they show it on the replay [screen]," he says. "You come back down the court, and the other team is trying to run a play, and the crowd is like, Ooooh!" And the bigger and badder the defender, the bigger the Ooooh. Which is why the player Griffin would most like to summit is Dwight Howard. (Given his choice of anyone in history, Griffin chooses Dikembe Mutombo because "he really took pride in shot-blocking, which would make it more rewarding.")
Against Minnesota, it first looks as if it might happen with just over four minutes left in the first quarter. Griffin cuts backdoor, and Baron Davis sees him and lofts an alley-oop. Sensing the moment, the crowd begins to rise. Only Griffin cannot quite reach around Minnesota center Darko Milicic and is forced instead to try to lay it in. From the rafters there comes a collective, regretful sigh.
This is understandable. There is a fleeting element to what we're witnessing from Griffin. After all, Ray Allen's jump shot is as pure now as it was 15 years ago. You've had many chances to see it live in person, and until Allen retires, you will have plenty more. Same for Kobe's late-game greatness and Steve Nash's clever passing. But what you are witnessing now from Griffin has an expiration date. Opponents are already beginning to play him more physically, trying to foul their way off a poster. And as Griffin gets older and his game evolves, he won't need to dunk as often, having become more cautious, just as Stoudemire and Jordan and Barkley and countless other once-reckless dunkers did. Your window to see him at his primal best could be five years, it could be two. Who knows?
So when it finally happens on this night, just before halftime, it is sweet. Griffin drives and flips up a bank shot past Milicic. The ball caroms off the side of the rim, and for the briefest of moments it appears that Love, stationed under the basket, will snare another board. Yet before he can rise high enough to corral the ball, Griffin has already landed, leaped again and violently dunked the rebound with two hands. Love, heretofore known as Victim #327, ends up grasping at air, his nose in the vicinity of Griffin's navel.
On the bench Anthony Tolliver tries to suppress a smile. He just got more company.