If you were watching the Clippers play the 76ers on Wednesday (and frankly, you're better off if you weren't, as it was far from a thing of beauty), you saw something very interesting just before halftime. Blake Griffin was hurtling toward the basket a fast break with a head of steam on, being chased by Jodie Meeks and Tony Battie of the Sixers. Blake got hit and fell awkwardly, tangled up with Battie. Ralph Lawler, the venerable Clippers announcer, exclaimed "Blake gets taken down hard" and Blake came up, ready to fight. He had to be restrained by the refs and his teammates from going after Battie.
Now, it's not at all unusual for Blake Griffin to take hard fouls. It's happened a LOT this season, a subject I touched on way back in early December. What was unusual about this play was Griffin's reaction.
I've never seen Griffin this upset. Not when he was blindsided by Andre Miller in one of the worst cheap shots in NBA history. Not when he was thrown out of bounds by Lamar Odom. Not even when he was horse collared by Devin Harris. I don't know if anyone tracks "Flagrant Fouls Against", but Blake Griffin is surely among the league leaders in the category, and quite possibly number one.
It's not difficult to surmise why Griffin takes so many hard fouls - there are lots of reasons for it. Blake's kind of a 'perfect storm' of hard foul factors. First and foremost, his opponents are all suffering from posterphobia. After watching what happened to Timofey Mozgov, defenders quickly realized that Griffin could very easily turn their name into an unflattering verb, and they don't want that to happen. The alternatives are to get out of the way, or to foul him, since they know they can't stop him any other way.
In addition, Blake has not shot free throws well in his rookie season. He's gotten better as the season has gone on, but he's still just a 64% foul shooter, probably the weakest part of his game. So there's a very good basketball reason to foul Blake Griffin: a dunk is an automatic two points, while free throws are far less certain.
Of course the fouls can't be touch fouls. Griffin is strong as an ox, and if you give him a normal foul, you are likely looking at a three point play. If your goal is to stay off the poster, put Griffin on the line, and save your team some points, then the answer is to foul Griffin, and foul him HARD. And that is exactly what has been happening.
It also seems that Blake has been getting under the skin of players, particularly veterans. For whatever reason, guys like Odom and Miller and James Posey who've been around awhile don't seem to like Griffin too very much. Maybe they think he's getting to much attention, or that things have been given to him a little too easily (Miller said essentially as much regarding Griffin's All Star team selection). Odom admitted that he was annoyed that Griffin was still playing hard in the final seconds of a game that was already decided - a funny thing to say, since playing to the final whistle is generally regarded as a good thing, as Kobe Bryant pointed out to his teammate.
All season long, Griffin has taken the abuse with calm maturity. When he gets knocked down, he gets back up and walks to the free throw line. In the case of the Andre Miller hit in particular, I was shocked that Griffin didn't level Miller (as I hoped he would). But Blake has rarely looked more than peeved at the abuse he takes, and hasn't really shown any signs of wanting to retaliate this season. To his credit, he lets his game do the talking (oh, and maybe gets in a couple extra pushes when the refs aren't looking).
That's why it was so odd that Griffin seemed to want to go after Battie on Wednesday. It became all the more incongruous when we saw the replay, and realized that Battie had done very little wrong on the play - in fact, he was actively trying to catch Griffin and protect him from injury, after Griffin lost his balance when Meeks cut him off and fouled him. I was actually very surprised when the refs let Battie's Flagrant Foul stand upon reviewing the play, only downgrading it from a category 2 rather than reversing it altogether. From what I saw, Battie was the good guy on this play.
Of course in the heat of the moment, going headlong towards the basket and then towards the ground, Blake couldn't really be blamed for not knowing exactly how it all happened. But with the benefit of hindsight, it's pretty clear to me that Griffin has been hit much harder, and much more maliciously, many times this season, and Blake must surely have realized this at some level as well. So why did this foul set him off?
In a word: frustration. It's a long, long NBA season, and Griffin has taken a lot of abuse in 69 games. I believe he's just gotten fed up with it. But it's not just the frustration of the accumulated hits. Griffin also happens to be in the most protracted 'slump' of his nascent career (if you can call averages of 16.6 points and 7.6 rebounds over the last five games a slump). Griffin has failed to register double digits in rebounding for five straight games, the longest such streak he's experienced as a pro. He had his career low of 8 points in the game before the Sixers game, and he's shooting under 40% in his last five. Defenders are keying on him and having great success as they become more familiar with him. They dare him to shoot, body him in the post, take away his spin move, and send an extra defender to chase him off his favorite spots - and it's having an effect.
In addition, it may not be simple coincidence that Griffin's recent struggles began after Baron Davis was traded to Cleveland for Mo Williams. Davis has never been given the credit he deserves as a passer. Last season, Tom Haberstroh of Hardwood Paroxysm undertook an analysis of quality assists (for lack of a better term); assists that lead directly to layups and dunks. The logic here is that while all assists look the same in the box score, the reality is that anyone can swing the ball to an open shooter for a three pointer, but it takes a little more, and the impact of the assister is far greater, to make a pass that leads to a gimme of some sort. Baron Davis led the league in quality assists as of last March when Haberstroh conducted his research, and one can only assume that he had even more this season playing alongside Griffin. Anyone who watched the Clippers earlier this year knows that Davis has gotten Griffin two to three easy buckets per game (at least) with his pinpoint passing, particularly his lobs. Davis (and a few others like Chris Paul and Andre Miller) make lobs look so easy that it's easy to forget that they are not, but if you've watched the Clippers as helmed by Williams or Randy Foye or Eric Bledsoe, you know all too well that lobs can go terribly wrong. Not to mention that those great setups for Griffin might well have been more than just easy points - they were also energizing plays that could get Griffin going in a game.
Neither does it help Griffin's cause that Eric Gordon has also been missing, out with a sprained wrist. Without the Clippers' leading scorer on the floor, defenses are free to dedicate even more attention to stopping Griffin.
It's up to Griffin to make the adjustment to defenses now. If they're starting to figure him out, then he'll just have to add a few more wrinkles to his game. He'll have Gordon back by his side soon as well, which is going to help. And more time playing with Williams certainly couldn't hurt. Davis and Griffin had two training camps and 50 games or so to develop on court chemistry - Williams and Griffin have only just met.
Griffin will continue to take hard fouls, at least until he's an 80% foul shooter, and probably beyond that point as well. How he reacts to them remains to be seen - but I have a feeling he'll be back to his usual calm, cool, collected self when the double doubles start flowing again.