Blake Griffin steps up after James Harden goes down in Brooklyn Nets’ Game 1

Years from now, when the story is told of Blake Griffin’s performance for the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semi-final series against Milwaukee, the tale will get taller.

So let’s get this into the permanent record right now. No, Griffin hadn’t been retired from the NBA for his inability to perform when he joined the Nets in March, even if he did so on a veteran’s minimum contract. It wasn’t all three of Brooklyn’s current All-Stars who got hurt in the opening minute at Barclays Center (though losing one, James Harden, was ominous enough). And in fact, Griffin did not push himself off a hospital gurney after double hip-replacement surgery to beat the Bucks and light up the league and social media with his throwback game.

What he did was impressive enough, scoring 18 points with a game-best 14 rebounds in 35 minutes. Griffin seemingly spent as much time scratching, rolling and clawing down on the floor as he did working upright on Saturday night. And when he did stand tall, he went 4-of-9 on three-pointers, a defense-deflating rate for Milwaukee on a night their shooters were 6-of-30 on three-pointers.

The six-time All-Star forward had such an impact in staking Brooklyn to their 1-0 series lead after a knock-around regular season that a little incredulity was understandable. No need for hyperbole, though, just because some doubted when he left Detroit in March if the former slam dunk champ who famously leaped over a car could even jump anymore.

Griffin wasn’t shelved, he wasn’t done. But he was off the radar for a while. If he took people’s breath away with his play in the Nets’ 115-107 victory, that was only partly on them.

“For two years, I didn’t hear much positivity, and probably rightfully so,” Griffin said after posting his first playoff double-double since 2016 with the Clippers. “But it’s pretty crazy how quickly it happens. I’m just thankful for this chance.”

The No 1 draft pick out of Oklahoma in 2009 and Rookie of the Year in 2011 went to five straight All-Star games as a member of the Clippers, averaging 21.6 points and 9.3 rebounds over eight seasons. Traded to Detroit halfway through 2017-18 – just months after signing a five-year, $173m deal presumably to keep him in Los Angeles for his career – Griffin made one more All-Star appearance, served as a veteran influence and took his game outside and the Pistons to a 2019 playoff appearance while dealing with a meniscus tear in his left knee.

He lasted only 18 games in 2019-20, undergoing surgery in January before the pandemic hit. This season, Detroit went all-in on their rebuild and shut Griffin down halfway through February before working out a contract buyout.

Brooklyn already was bursting at the seams with star power when Griffin signed on, so there was no need – even if he could have – for him to hunt for shots or otherwise force himself into the offense, not with Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving around.

OK, so those guys only played together for eight games all season due to assorted injuries and absences. But Griffin knew the plan and found a way to fit anyway.

He focused on a journeyman team-mate from Detroit who got to the Nets four months before he did and found a niche.

“What Bruce Brown has done for the team all year was huge,” Griffin said. “I was watching that and I felt like, that’s another hole that could be filled.”

That’s why, as big as Griffin’s 18 points in Game 1 were, it was the way he wrestled for loose balls, forcing a pair of jump balls and showing the Nets, the Bucks, and the Brooklyn crowd his commitment to things other than stats that stood out most.

“When I was coming to this team, one of the things I felt I could bring was some physicality and some plays like that,” Griffin said. “When you have a team as dynamic as this team with three scorers who can score from almost anywhere – and Joe [Harris] who also, it seems like every shot he takes is going in – you kind of have to fill those those holes.”

Griffin did some of that with the ball, too, rolling for a dunk in a pick-and-roll with Durant and getting points off the glass. Then there was his accuracy from deep, with four three-pointers after going 0-for-2 total in the first round against Boston.

The Celtics played an aggressive switching defense, which didn’t allow Griffin many looks from outside. In fact, he only scored 24 points in the series. Milwaukee prefer to drop back, which had Brook Lopez out of reach when he even tried to contest Griffin’s threes.

Nets coach Steve Nash said: “Make-and-miss is important, of course, in its finality. But that willingness to fight and claw and do the dirty work has been unbelievable in Blake since he got here. His energy and toughness and how much he cares were on display.”

It was such a dazzling, throwback performance by Griffin that, even after Harden departed after 43 seconds with his sore right hamstring, Brooklyn had three superstars on the floor after all.

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