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.

Rajon Rondo returning to Florida to continue injury rehab

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Rajon Rondo is coming back to Floria to continue his injury rehab — but not inside the bubble. Yet.

The Laker point guard fractured his thumb during practice before the season started, requiring surgery expected to sideline him 6-8 weeks, the team announced at the time. Three weeks into that, he is coming back to Florida for rehab, coach Frank Vogel told the media (via Dave McMenamin of ESPN).

Rondo is likely a few weeks from being back on the court. So long as he tests negative for seven consecutive days before returning to the NBA’s “bubble” campus, he will only be in quarantine for four days. While he can do some conditioning work during his rehab he’s still going to need some time to work back into game shape.

Rondo came off the bench for the Lakers this season, averaging 7.1 points and five assists a game. More importantly, he was the guy running the offense when LeBron James was off the court. Dion Waiters has stepped into that role, and the pairing of him with Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma has looked good so far (small sample size alert).

The Lakers have locked up the top seed in the West, they don’t need Rondo for the seeding games. However, when the playoffs start, Vogel and the Lakers will need all hands on deck to get through a deep and talented West.

Three Things to Know: Luka Doncic, Devin Booker show bubble is for the young

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Devin Booker drains game-winner, bubble Suns undefeated

Devin Booker desperately wants to be mentioned among the best guards in the league — and he puts up the raw numbers to be in that club. It has been his defense and the fact his team is still woeful that has kept him from getting membership.

Not in the bubble.

Phoenix is 3-0 at the NBA restart after Booker drained a turnaround game-winner over Paul George — giving Booker 35 points on the night — to beat the Clippers.

The Clippers helped beat themselves. The Suns had the ball with 31 seconds to go and the Clippers — Kawhi Leonard in particular — defended them well, forcing Ricky Rubio into a difficult, high-arcing shot he missed. Ivica Zubac did a good job grabbing the rebound, but then he hurried the outlet pass and Mikal Bridges tipped it, Deandre Ayton grabbed it, and the Suns got to reset and take one more shot. Then, on that shot, Zubac came out high to double, giving a lane to Booker to drive, and the rest is history. The Clippers are 1-2 in the bubble and not impressing anyone.

The Suns and Booker are impressing everyone.

2) Luka Doncic‘s historic triple-double reminder Mavericks are playoff threat

Those stumbling Clippers mentioned above most likely will face the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs — and that has upset potential. In part because the Clippers have yet to find the chemistry and cohesion in the bubble — or have their key players all together — that they had the weeks before the league was shut down.

And in part because Luka Doncic can take over a game — and maybe a series. Doncic put up a ridiculous line of 34 points, 20 rebounds, and 12 assists, leading the Mavericks to an overtime win against the Kings. Doncic, at age 21, became the youngest NBA player ever with a 30-20-10 stat line, beating Oscar Robertson (23).

Doncic will be an All-NBA player this year (first or second team) and will get bottom-of-the-ballot MVP votes — he is an elite, franchise cornerstone player. Dallas is building a dangerous team around him (Kristaps Porzingis as the pick-and-pop partner, Tim Hardaway and Seth Curry as shooters, Dwight Powell doing the dirty work, and more) that seems a year or two away. But if youth is being served in the bubble, maybe not.

3) Jaren Jackson Jr.‘s injury changes feel of race for eighth in West.

The Memphis Grizzlies entered the restart with huge advantages — a 3.5 game lead for the eighth seed in the West, plus only having to win one-of-two games in a play-in series.

However, Memphis has started 0-3 in the bubble, and now this — young star center Jaren Jackson Jr. is out for the rest of the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee. It’s a blow to the Grizzlies, who have been competitive in those losses but now have lost their second-best player.

Memphis suddenly doesn’t feel safe as the eighth seed, not after Carmelo Anthony‘s dagger helped Portland beat Houston Tuesday night.

Portland is now just 1.5 games back of ailing Memphis for the eighth seed, with San Antonio (2 games behind Memphis) and New Orleans (2.5 back) lurking. Portland has three tough games coming up — Nuggets, Clippers, 76ers — while New Orleans has Zion Williamson playing more minutes and a soft schedule ahead. The race for the eighth spot in the West — the only real race in the bubble — feels wide open with five games to play.

And youth may be served.

Carmelo Anthony sinks dagger into Houston, Portland gets win

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 21 points and Carmelo Anthony hit a big 3-pointer late to help the Portland Trail Blazers to a 110-102 victory over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night.

The Blazers led by one before Lillard made one of two free throws. Anthony’s three then extended the lead to 107-102 when less than a minute to go.

Lillard raved about the contributions of Anthony, who found a home with the Trail Blazers after spending several months without a team last year following a brief stint with the Rockets.

“I think it’s more disappointing that people are surprised by it,” Lillard said. “He’s a Hall of Famer … he’s a great teammate and that’s what we expect from him.”

Coach Terry Stotts loves how Anthony has evolved to help his team.

“Earlier in his career, the ball would have been in his hands to start with,” Stotts said. “He has assimilated to his role and this team. He loves the game. He loves the camaraderie, he loves being in the NBA.”

Lillard added two free throws and Anthony, who had 15 points and 11 rebounds, made one in the final minute to secure the victory for Portland, which is fighting for a playoff spot.

“We understand what’s on the line and we know what we got to do to to give ourselves a chance in the postseason,” Lillard said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”

James Harden led Houston with 23 points and nine assists on a night he was slowed by foul trouble.

“I couldn’t be as aggressive as I wanted to being in foul trouble,” he said. “But we had a lot of open shots that if we make those those it’s a different ballgame.”

Jeff Green added a season-high 22 points as the Rockets lost for the first time in the bubble after winning their first two games.

The Blazers were up by six midway through the final quarter after CJ McCollum and Lillard made consecutive baskets. But Green scored all Houston’s points in a 7-1 spurt that tied it at 98 a minute later.

McCollum finished with 20 points as the Blazers pulled within 1 1/2 games of eighth-place Memphis.

“Our biggest problem with the whole game is first of all we didn’t come out with a lot of energy, and our defense was pretty slow to start,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said.

The game was tied again later in the fourth when Gary Trent Jr. made a 3-pointer to put Portland up 103-100. A driving layup by Harden cut the lead to one with about 2 minutes to go.

Danuel House made a 3-pointer to get the Rockets within two midway through the third quarter. Lillard then scored all of Portland’s points in a 9-3 run that pushed the lead to 82-74 with about 3 1/2 minutes left in the third.

Lillard had a three-point play and then sank 3s on consecutive possessions to allow the Trail Blazers to build the lead. Harden spent the last five minutes of the third quarter on the bench after picking up his fifth foul on the three-point play by Lillard.

Hassan Whiteside had four points for the Trail Blazers late in the third, but Austin Rivers capped the quarter with a 3-pointer to get Houston within 86-80 to start the fourth.

 

Jimmy Butler sits, Miami still beats Boston 111-106

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — With or without Jimmy Butler, the Miami Heat felt they needed to send a message to the Boston Celtics.

Bam Adebayo had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and the Heat never trailed in beating the Celtics 111-106 on Tuesday to remain alone in the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Celtics had their lead for the No. 3 seed cut to 1 1/2 games over the Heat. Miami has a game lead on Indiana and improved to 2-1 so far in the seeding games, despite Butler sitting out with a sore right ankle after playing Monday in a loss to Toronto.

“A lot of guys stepped up,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said. “This couldn’t be two, three guys playing well. We’re going to need several guys playing well and doing it over the course of 48 minutes.”

Adebayo said this victory meant something more after losing twice to Boston during the regular season.

“Instead of being beat 3-0, we were like, ‘We got to make a stand. We got to prove a point,’” Adebayo said. “And like I said before, I feel like this team can battle with anybody … Who knows how the game could’ve been if had we had Jimmy?”

Duncan Robinson also had 21 points for Miami. Goran Dragic added 20 off the bench, Kelly Olynyk scored 15 and Tyler Herro 11.

Jayson Tatum led Boston with 23 points. Jaylen Brown had 13 points and 10 rebounds, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker each added 15 points and Enes Kanter scored 10.

“We let our emotions play too much of a part today,” Tatum said. “We’ve just got to do a better job of just focusing on what we can control and not worry about other things.”

Walker, who beat the buzzer with a shot from mid-court at the end of the third, hit a 3 with 1:26 left to pull Boston within 108-101. Daniel Theis hit a pair of free throws with 19.8 seconds left, then Dragic traveled. Walker hit another 3 with 13 seconds remaining to pull Boston within 109-106.

Andre Iguodala hit a free throw, and Robinson hit two more in the final seconds in a win that meant a lot to someone who grew up 45 minutes north of Boston.

“I grew up going to TD Garden,” Robinson said. “We’ve played them multiple times, we haven’t done well. I haven’t done well, and I was reminding myself of that constantly.”

Miami scored the first bucket and led by as much as 10 before being up 33-28 at the end of the first quarter. The Heat pushed that lead to as much as 16 in the second quarter with a 10-point spurt capped by four free throws by Adebayo. The last pair, with 51.6 left, made it 63-47. Miami led 63-51 at halftime.

The Celtics went on a 16-3 run to pull within 69-68 on an alley-oop dunk by Theis off a pass from Tatum with 6:08 left in the third. The Heat answered with a 14-2 spurt capped by a three-point play by Adebayo with 3:20 to go for an 83-71 lead. Miami led 91-83 at the end of the third.

“We weren’t solid, and they exposed that,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Our defense has to improve from what it’s been in the three games or so. Credit Miami. They played with unbelievable intensity and togetherness tonight.”