Blake Griffin

The “Violence Against Blake Griffin” situation

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He’s asking for it.

OK, stop, that right there. That’s me trying to snag your attention with some sort of bombastic statement. I can assure you my position is more nuanced than this phrase, which by the way, in the context of violence of any sort — on-court, off-court, sexual, non-sexual — should never, ever be used, and that my use of it is only as a way to let you know this is actually a thing that’s going on and not just “oh, Jason Smith gave Blake Griffin a hard foul.”

The NBA is developing a problem for itself, and how it handles it will be a very delicate matter. Because Blake Griffin is asking for it, and that’s what the league wants.

Remember those halcyon days last year when Griffin was just creating highlights, detonating at 10,000 feet like the NBA version of a warhead, and everyone just thought it was awesome? Yeah, hi, welcome to 2012, where due to exposure, the life expectancy of your ubiquitous mass appeal is about 45 seconds. Griffin hasn’t been the same monster this year that he was last year. He’s still got a handful of absolutely absurd throwdowns, but his points, rebounds, and assists are all down per 36 minutes from last year. His efficiency is slightly up, both in field goal percentage and PER, but his free throw shooting is down. And while his free throw rate is down from his rookie year, you can tell that part of the drop in his productivity has to do with the fouls he’s taking.

Last year, it was cute. There were some who gave the hard foul, it got to be more of an issue, the Clippers certainly complained about it, but in reality, it was mostly just adorable that he tried so hard on every play. But this year, the cuteness has worn off. The book is out on Griffin. Hammer him, punish him, make it clear you will not stand for him putting you on NBC SportsTalk as a highlight. And since Griffin is so physical, so athletic, so aggressive, you have to do it fast. So you have fast, plus violence. Or, in the absence of fast, you can have reckless. Observe.

Now, Smith has already apologized for the hit, and knows it was reckless. In reality, this play isn’t indicative of what Griffin is facing on a night-to-night basis. This is an outlier, a sloppy combination of a player giving up on trying to make the play while not giving up on giving contact. This isn’t the type of player Jason Smith is, it was just a bad foul. But this, again, is the book on Blake Griffin. This is how you stop him. And he knows that, which is why he’s also driving fans nuts (and making them want those hard fouls given) by freaking out over every call.

This isn’t anything new for Griffin. He’s typically always had the same attitude. And if it seems familiar, here’s why, and I want to be clear on this so we’re going all bold: Every great player in the history of the NBA has freaked out over getting calls because it gives them an edge. Yes, Jordan. Yes, Kobe. Yes, Duncan. Yes, Malone. Yes, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose, LeBron James and Travis Diener. (OK, Travis didn’t do that, nor was he great.)

It’s part of it. It’s how you react. And it’s a two way street. Those players I mentioned above, the Trav not withstanding, they all take an excessive amount of punishment which the league cannot completely corral. Kobe Bryant gets a ridiculously high number of foul calls in his favor. He also has a ridiculous number of fouls calls missed. If you go through and watch a ton of highlights, you’re going to see guys being more hands-on with Kobe than they were with their dad’s stash of adult magazines when they were 13. And by they I mean you. Bryant takes bumps, scrapes, hits, whacks, thumps, shoves, elbows, and I think one time bites because he has the ball a ton, scores the ball a ton, and his defenders will do anything to stop him.

So Griffin’s reaction is annoying and overdramatic, but it’s not only trying to win to get that advantage, it’s self-preservation. The Clippers and Griffin honestly feel that he’s targeted, and that the abuse he takes is greater than that of the average player. And he’s probably right. And the reason for why that is what gives the league such a headache.

The NBA wants those highlights. It wants Griffin putting a ridiculous poster down on some huge defender to steal the spotlight from baseball on highlight shows across the country on the third night of baseball season. It wants to showcase this dynamic, explosive young powerhouse whose play seems like Thor himself raining thunder down on his enemies. But they do have, despite public sentiment to the opposite, a practice of letting the players police themselves. You’re allowed to target a guy as long as you do it within the bounds of play and you do not violate any of the specific rules set forth. You’ll be punished for such plays, whether it’s a personal, flagrant, or flagrant II foul. But they don’t specifically act to control such measures, because they can’t treat any one player as special. Just because Blake Griffin tries really hard doesn’t mean that they can involve themselves in protecting him from harm any more so than for Chris Paul or Dwight Howard or Sam Young or Drew Gooden. They can only respond to excessive incidents.

The nature of the game means they can only be reactive.

And that’s a trick for them. It’s why you see so many superstar young guys fade into less contact. Dwyane Wade was a contact-loving machine his first three seasons. A barrel full of injuries later and his game is much more predicated on slipping contact than creating it. Griffin’s already trying to diversify his game to be more deadly from range (and failing miserably). We want to see him drive instead of take that mid-range jumper, but the only way he can draw defenders out to create space and therefore not get beaten to a pulp when he drives is to knock down that shot.

Meanwhile the league is going to face this as a continuing issue. Because Griffin’s adjusting, but he’s not relenting. For all the complaints and the way defenses have adjusted to him, you have to give him that. He’s still waiting like a cobra to strike every time down the floor. But eventually the NBA may be put into a position where they have to intercede on the players’ own policing. And that’s going to get bad very quickly.

Addendum: You’re going to hear the phrase “back in the day” or “in the 80’s” a lot in relation to this issue. Please bear in mind two things. One, there’s a reason the game has evolved away from that and it has less to do with cultural values or an NBA image problem and more to do with the players not wanting to operate in an environment where their career can be threatened or their lives can be put in danger. It may make you feel like a man to talk about how tough things you used to not do were, but the reality has changed.

Two, the speed and violence capable at this level greatly exceeds what we knew in the 80’s due to strength and conditioning regimens and that means the dangers are that much higher. No one’s advocating getting rid of the hard foul here, or getting rid of the hard foul on Griffin. The point is simply that Griffin’s particular style means that the odds of injury continue to increase and that means the odds of a fight increase, and that violence at a high velocity, particularly in mid-air (which is why the Smith foul isn’t nearly as bad as others we’ve seen) is going to be problematic without intervention eventually.

Five things Thunder did to go from good to brink of reaching NBA Finals

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16:  Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder high fives Serge Ibaka #9 and Kevin Durant #35 during game one of the NBA Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Oklahoma City was a 55-win team — most season’s that win total would have them entering the playoffs considered a contender. They have Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, two top five players in the league. But with the 73-win Warriors and 67-win Spurs ahead of them, the Thunder felt more like a good but flawed team doomed to an early exit and a summer of speculation.

Now the Thunder are one win away from knocking off the Spurs and Warriors back-to-back.

What changed? Here are five things the Thunder are doing better now than they did all season, the things propelling them to new heights.

1) Defense. The Thunder were an okay defensive team this season, allowing 103 points per 100 possessions they ranked 12th in the league. That got worse after the All-Star break when the Thunder allowed 105.7 points per 100 possessions, 16th in the league. Over the final month, they would show flashes of how they could play lock down defense, but they could not sustain it.

Now, this is a team that has held the feared Warriors offense to 88.9 points per 100 possessions Tuesday, 98.1 in Game 3. What changed was they have become fluid at switching on picks — both on and off the ball — and they are communicating. More importantly, they are smart in doing it, knowing when to go under or when to ignore the pick whatsoever. Their athleticism lets them make up ground, and their length allows them to get into passing lanes and create turnovers. Mostly the Thunder are playing with a sustained focus and energy on that end of the floor we haven’t seen ever. It has flummoxed the Warriors, who are rushing shots or trying to do things in isolation more than moving the ball.

“I think you have to build up stamina for that,” Warriors coach Billy Donovan said of the improved defensive energy and attention. “I think you have to have stamina to concentrate and focus and do what these guys do.”

2) Dion Waiters. Dion Waiters, in his entire career, has played as well as he has the past couple weeks. He’s like a new player. This is a guy who had a PER of 9.4 this season, the kind of number associated with being sent to the D-League. Credit to Billy Donovan and the Thunder coaching staff, Waiters gets it. Too often before he wanted to shoot like he was Russell Westbrook, now he has accepted the third (or fourth) man role. His shot selection has improved, and with that he is knocking down his jumpers. Like the entire team from item No. 1, his usually unfocused defense has suddenly become good almost every time down. He has become the third perimeter player the Thunder have needed for years.  With Waiters making plays, and more importantly accepting his role, the Thunder become that much harder to stop. The Warriors have not been able to.

3) Solving the Andre Roberson problem. The Golden State Warriors decided to treat Andre Roberson like they did Tony Allen from Memphis last season — put a big on him (Andrew Bogut or Draymond Green), then have said big ignore him to stay near the basket to protect the rim. If Roberson wanted to shoot from the outside, the Warriors would let the notoriously poor shooter (31.1 percent from three this past season) have all the wide open shots he wanted.

Billy Donovan made a great adjustment — he turned Roberson into a power forward/center, then surrounded him with shooters. This allows the active Roberson to set the pick for Westbrook (or whomever), then roll right down the lane to the basket for a dunk.  That and some backdoor cuts had Roberson scoring a career-high 17 points and giving the Thunder the support they need around their big stars.

“It’s funny because after Game 2 people were saying to me ‘is this guy even going to play anymore?’” Donovan said. “Andre’s a good basketball player, and I think one of the things that go missing with him is he makes winning plays and he’s a winning player. There are a lot of things he can do, offensive rebounds and slashing to the basket, I have confidence in him shooting the basketball.”

4) They are one team that could play small and run with Golden State. The Warriors small-ball lineup was so feared around the league it earned the nickname The Death Lineup. It killed teams. Nobody could keep up the scoring machine that was the Warriors going small.

Until the Thunder went small in Game 3 and ran right past the death lineup (which was -22 for the game). The Thunder are the one team with the depth of athleticism to go small with the Warriors and hang, but this lineup had been destroyed by the Spurs so it was a risk to roll it out again. It worked this time around becuase the Thunder become so much faster. The Thunder defense didn’t suffer —  Serge Ibaka (or Steven Adams), plus guys like Kevin Durant have done a fantastic job protecting the rim.

“It’s not about what is or is not going to work, sometimes you just got to put stuff out there based on teams. You’ve got to be willing to take some risks and do that…” Donovans siad postgame

“Sometimes you’ve got to evaluate things within the series you’re playing against. So, why were the numbers bad? And was there any way with adjustments could we make those numbers better.”

5) Billy Donovan has been fantastic. Donovan went toe-to-toe with Gregg Popovich, and now Steve Kerr, and it is the NBA rookie who is making the right adjustments. Like the small ball lineup, or using Roberson like a center.

But more than that, he has gotten buy-in from the team. The Thunder were never this focused, Durant and Westbrook both fought staggering their minutes in the past, and waiters did whatever it is Waiters wanted to do. Donovan has solved all those problems, but none of it works if the players don’t buy in. After a season where Donovan had to learn on the job the hard way — because Monte Williams (the tragic death of this wife) and Maurice Cheeks (injury) — Donovan has figured it out. He’s getting the kind of buy in Scott Brooks never seemed to have.

And with that, Donovan and the Thunder are within a game of the NBA Finals.

Watch Russell Westbrook drop 36 on Golden State in Oklahoma City win

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Once again, Russell Westbrook was the force of nature the Warriors could not solve.

The athletic point guard forced turnovers, threw it down in transition, and drove right past Stephen Curry or  was guarding him. The result was 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists — Westbrook’s first triple double of these playoffs.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after the Thunder’s Game 4 win. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

He helped give them a win that has the Thunder on the verge of a return to the NBA Finals.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder defense again overwhelm Warriors 118-94, take commanding 3-1 lead

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts in the first half against the Golden State Warriors in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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One year ago, it was the Warriors’ adjustments, the Warriors’ defense that was propelling the franchise to its first title in 40 years.

This season, the Thunder turned the tables on the champs.

The length and switching of the Thunder defense resulted in 16 steals Tuesday night — and that means easy transition buckets for OKC. That swarming defense had an off Stephen Curry open the game 1-of-10 shooting, turning the ball over six times on the night, and finishing 6-of-20 shooting, 2-of-10 from three. The Thunder defense has made the Warriors shooters tentative; they are hesitating before making a play rather than just shooting in the flow, something that has seemed impossible to do to Golden State for a couple of seasons now. As a team, the Warriors shot just 30 percent from three and 41.3 percent overall, with Klay Thompson in the second half being the only guy who could knock down shots.

Curry was also asked to guard Russell Westbrook for long stretches of the game and that didn’t go well. Westbrook was the Thunder engine again and finished with a triple-double of 36 points, 11 assists, and 11 rebounds.

Once again the Thunder played fast, aggressive and beat the Warriors at their own game — a 118-94 Thunder win. Oklahoma City now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out Thursday night in Golden State. If not, it feels like Saturday night will be the end of the Warriors 73-win season.

And maybe just the beginning for a talented Thunder team that is just now coming together.

Right now, everything the Thunder try works.

For example, on offense, Billy Donovan made another smart adjustment — if the Warriors were going to ignore Andre Roberson (allowing bigs like Draymond Green or Andrew Bogut to patrol around the rim), the Thunder would start using Roberson like a power forward who set picks, rolled to the rim, and surrounded by shooters he and his teammates could make plays. Roberson finished with career high 17 points on 12 shots.

“He’s a pretty active player so he got some offensive boards and he snuck behind our defense a couple times and we did not guard him correctly,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

It all worked in the first half again, when the Thunder were attacking the rim — leading to 28 first half free throws from the Thunder — and after a tight first quarter OKC stretched the lead out to 20 points behind a 16-point quarter from Westbrook. This is when the Thunder took charge of the game.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Westbrook. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

Golden State made a comeback in the third that was all Klay Thompson — he had 19 consecutive points for the Warriors, and the lead got cut down to 6 at one point. Thompson finished the night with 26 points on 17 shots and was clear and away the best Warrior (with Harrison Barnes second).

But then Westbrook led a push back that again stretched the lead out, and he got help from Dion Waiters with a three (Waiters played well again and had 10 points on the night). The Thunder never looked back.

Kevin Durant added 26 points (but on 8-of-24 shooting, not his best night), while Serge Ibaka added 17. The Thunder may be the only team in the NBA with the depth of athletes to run with Golden State, and they are doing it and making it work.

The Warriors defense has no answer for the Thunder attack, and Golden State is getting away from some of their identity. They have always switched nearly every pick with their small lineup, but because of rebounding concerns this series they have gotten away from that. The Thunder have figured out how to exploit that.

The Warriors have just not adjusted to the length of the Thunder defense — Golden State turned the ball over 21 times, 19.9 percent of their possessions. If you give it away one every five times down the court to a good team, you lose.

“I thought we competed again tonight, I just thought we didn’t play very intelligently,” Kerr said postgame. “Too many turnovers, careless passes. This is probably the longest team in the league we are facing and we continue to try and throw passes over the top of their outstretched arms. Probably not a great idea.”

In addition to Curry, Draymond Green had his second poor game in a row — 1-of-7 shooting with six turnovers, and again he was out of position on defense too often. He has played like a guy flustered by the opponent.

A lot of the Warriors have, while the Thunder just gain confidence. The kind of confidence that will carry them back to the NBA Finals.

 

Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant put on first-half show at Warriors’ expense

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I’d say Warriors fans are stunned, but more than that Warriors players look stunned — they are getting steamrolled by Oklahoma City again, giving up 72 first half points and being down by 19.

I guess we tell Warriors’ fans what we have told the fans of teams they have steamrolled the past couple years — enjoy the show, you don’t get to see many like this.

Above was a Kevin Durant to Russell Westbrook fastbreak assist and bucket. Now check out the fantastic Steven Adams pass, and a highlight package of Westbrook dropping 16 in the second quarter on the Warriors (21 in the first half).