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It’s a Bird, It’s a Pain: The Confounding Powers of Blake Griffin

I’m going to fly this car, sir: the glorious, maddening Blake Griffin.

It wasn’t his fault — not exactly. The Clippers’ fourth-quarter collapse against the Rockets last night was a masterpiece of team failure; desecrations of basketball on that scale can’t happen unless everyone pitches in. Blaming Blake Griffin for the Clippers’ 31-point scoring deficit over the last 14:15 overlooks the vital contributions of his teammates, including Guy Who Fumbles the Ball Every Time He Touches It and Guy Who Stands in the Corner Literally Shrieking “Jesus, No, Don’t Pass to Me!”

Still, Griffin’s fourth-quarter gallery of scared passes from right under the basket and on-tilt layup attempts says a lot about what makes him such a hard player to figure out, even now, deep into his fifth season in the league. He has played the best basketball of his career in this year’s playoffs — 25 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists per game, and those numbers don’t begin to cover the havoc he’s unleashed on opposing defenses. Through three quarters last night, he was the best player on the floor. He shot 75 percent in a 22-point first half. He whirled around Trevor Ariza and crushed a dunk through Jason Terry. He hit a 3. At one point late in the third quarter, he banked in a ludicrous shot while twirling through the air, flipping the ball up over his head with his back to the basket. Then, nothing. The spinning circus shot was his last basket of the game.

Everyone’s a superhero these days, but when he’s at his best, Griffin is the NBA player who most easily could have been drawn and inked from the imagination of some Silver Age pulp genius. Do you know what I mean? He’s got that overblown, exaggerated look — the big wedge of a head, the bowling-ball shoulders. And since no one so huge and denselooking should be able to move as fast as he does, he gives the impression of somehow both flattening and periodizing space: You watch him cut to the basket in a series of strobe flashes, panels that with only a tiny shift in perspective might call for a white-boxed voice-over and sound effects in huge red letters.

Nights like these are always lonely. [Blake hunched and twisted at the waist, holding the ball out to one side, the glittering eyes of the crowd vanishing into darkness.]

The court belongs to me and me alone. [Blake putting the ball on the floor, driving his shoulder into a defender who falls back with panic contorting his face.]

The other players simply fade away. [Blake spinning around the gaping defender, his eyes savage, the space around him bleeding into red mist.]

My only companion is THE BEAST. [Blake airborne and snarling, the ball cocked back behind his head, lines of power radiating from his form.]

And the Beast NEEDS FOOD. [Blake dunking the basketball, lit from below in an eerie bloom of flashbulbs, a fiery KA-THROOOOM!!! arcing out from his giant hand.]

Griffin is one of those players whose natural athletic charisma is so obvious that when he’s playing well, you wonder how he could ever play badly. He just seems like someone who should dominate. (In this sense he’s the opposite of, say, Steph Curry, who looks frail and slow until the moment he starts raining lightning.) When you see him flying with the ball into a crowd of scrambling defenders, hitching his hips to the right, turning left, making one guy go running out to find J.J. Redick on the perimeter and another guy come running in to guard the rim and another guy fall flat on his back from sheer dismay … well, it’s hard to see how anyone could stop him, ever. Maybe the Silver Surfer. Maybe Draymond Green, on a good day.

When it starts going wrong, though, the way it did against the Rockets last night, Griffin’s game breaks down into its component parts. Nothing clicks. He can get to the rim, but then he wants to pass. He can spot a teammate breaking to the basket, but then he wants to try a contested 18-footer. It’s as if he reverts back to his secret identity and starts trying to fight crime in his flannel business suit.

My powers … FADING. My strength … GONE. Must … not … give in … [Blake’s head twists to the side as he’s slapped, hard, by the red-gloved hand of supervillain Corey Brewer.]

It’s easy to see him in these terms in part because it’s easy to hear him reading this cornball comic-book dialogue. Griffin is the best comic actor in the league, the baritone idol of a thousand Kia commercials, and he particularly excels at a sort of über-pompous, joke’s-on-me lordliness. His quintessential role is the preening egotist whose cluelessness makes him invincible. I’m going to fly this car, sir; stand back. It’s another reason he’s so hard to make sense of on the court; his persona pivots around the strange axis between ferocity and silliness. Every explosive move he makes is costumed in the feeling that his powers are always, ha, kind of a joke. But then every funny thing he says comes wrapped in the knowledge that he’s really one of the world’s scariest athletes.

His game has always been a tricky mixture. When he first arrived in the league from Oklahoma, he was what’s politely called “raw.” He could dunk like … well, like a car flying off an aircraft carrier. And he was dynamic enough to win rookie of the year on a pretty awful Clippers team. But his shooting was questionable. His decision-making was erratic. He didn’t have many post moves beyond “New Wave–style jump cut to the rim from 10 feet away.”

He has improved every aspect of his play, but finding the right ratio hasn’t been easy. When he over-relies on post play, he gets predictable, but when he stresses his increasingly plausible midrange game, he drifts away from what he’s best at (i.e., taking revenge on the rim for murdering his great-grandfather in a past life). His court vision has quietly grown into something marvelous, as if playing with Chris Paul unlocked something in him; he senses angles and possibilities most players don’t see. (Reminder: He plays the 4.) But when he looks to distribute the ball, his paint-crashing duties suffer. His struggle over the past few years has been to reroute his instincts around the correct balance of capabilities. It’s like watching someone calibrate a complex machine. When it’s not working, the readout goes Connection Failure (Status Code: WTF). But when he’s on, it’s Adjust dial … adjust dial … adjust dial … LEBRON JAMES.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 08: Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots over Terrence Jones #6 of the Houston Rockets during Game Three of the Western Conference semifinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center on May 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

And because Griffin gives off that should-be-unstoppable vibe, it’s easy to criticize him when he’s not the best player on the court. You think greatness should be his baseline, so when he’s settling for too many 12-foot jumpers, or when his post game looks like a ballet about angry hobos, you’re tempted to write him off as a one-dimensional player who never grew beyond his rookie-year reel of highlight dunks. He’s gotten a lot of that over the years. Then something like the first half of Game 6 happens, and Dwight Howard is trying to pick himself up off the floor, and you realize just how much work went into Griffin cresting the way he has been. And as he would intone from, I don’t know, a Kia-branded space shuttle, or the back of an elephant: It is glorious.

Let’s tell each other the truth here for a second. Let’s look into one another’s eyes. This Rockets-Clippers series has not been fun to watch. It has not been enjoyable, you guys. The Rockets’ comeback last night made Game 6 exciting, in a way, but seeing the Clippers laid bare like that was more painful than thrilling. We can admit this. The Spurs series was a start-to-finish, seven-game delight, at least when no hands were being laid on DeAndre Jordan, and Griffin was just one of many great basketball phenomena happening at any given moment. Not even the main one, most times. But against Houston? We’ve had games where James Harden played like an itch no one could reach. We’ve had games where the Rockets forgot they were playing and just sort of swanned around making faces for 48 minutes. We’ve had ugly, bad-tempered games that never rose to the dignity of a street fight. We’ve had games where Jordan shot 12,397 free throws. Last night, in the first half, he shot 497 of them. I checked that number on nba.com; it is correct.

For 23 of the last 24 quarters, Griffin has been a beacon of fun, a scroll preserved from a lost civilization that still knew how to party. Now, people hate the Clippers; I know this. They flop. They whine. They react to every foul call by falling to their knees and declaiming poems about injustice. The poems don’t rhyme, but the Clippers act like they rhyme. Paul 100 percent believes he deserves a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and he will interrupt games to call The New Yorker and say things like “My ‘Elegy for a Twin Who Sold Flood Insurance’ smokes Rae Armantrout’s ass.”1 The Clippers can be annoying, is what I’m saying. I get that.


1.

“Where is your mustache now, where has it gone / In what dark brine do your glasses bob unsinking?”

But in the same way that Paul can be a petulant scold and also the greatest pure point guard of his generation, Griffin can get on your nerves sometimes and also be a dazzling force to witness. In the lukewarm bumper-car rink of this Rockets series, he’s been the one consistent joy. Maybe he can’t sustain it all the time; maybe he’ll never be the fourth-quarter killer we demand; maybe he’ll only do it in flashes. But what flashes. Watch him shred through the Houston defense; watch him, like, tesseract through Ariza. I don’t know how things stand in your brain, but to me, it’s been pretty incredible. That someone so heavy could be so light. That someone whose game is so counterintuitive could make it, for once, look so simple.

He’ll play the most important basketball game of his life on Sunday, Game 7 at Houston, with a trip to the conference finals on the line. And it suits him, I think, that the best stretch of basketball he’s ever played is also the moment when you’d reflect on how tenuous his hold on greatness is, how easily his game dissociates. That you’d see how much awkward, grueling work went into forging something that can look so inspired. Blake isn’t a player like LeBron or Kobe, whose legends depend on your sense that they were somehow created perfect. He’s not saddled with that kind of importance. He plays like something in a comic book. He makes the game seem a thousand times more serious than it is — and so, in a different way, not very serious at all.