The body looks as strong, or even stronger, as when he entered the league more than a decade ago as a hulk. An athletic freak, with the ability to soar far above the rim for scintillating dunks.
Blake Griffin works feverishly in the weight room on his conditioning, ensuring that whatever he gets at age 33, he is as physically prepared as possible to fill whatever role the Celtics require.
Some nights, it’s bench cheerleader. Others, it’s emergency center, and on Monday, it was starter, with Al Horford getting a night of rest against the undermanned Charlotte Hornets.
Griffin began the night with a 3-pointer, thrilled the TD Garden crowd with a hammer dunk off an alley-oop, and then delivered another two-hander in the 140-105 win. The game was never in question. The Hornets were missing four starters, including former Celtics Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward.
It served as a perfect opportunity for Griffin to not only get extensive minutes — a season-high 22, which ended with nine points and four rebounds — but show the crowd, NBA faithful, and even his teammates that he has some bounce left.
Griffin, once the NBA’s most fearsome dunker and athletic specimen, has been limited the past decade by leg issues, zapping his trampoline-like jumping ability and forcing him to change his game.
Griffin flourished in those early years with the Clippers, the centerpiece of Lob City with Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan, but team chemistry and injury derailed his time in Los Angeles. He experienced a bounce back year with the Detroit Pistons, reaching the All-Star Game in 2019.
But a man who averaged 196 dunks per season in his first four years has just 54 in the past three combined. He rations out athletic efforts, and he isn’t the focal point of offenses as he was once upon a time, when he fiercely attacked the rim on pick-and-rolls.
Griffin has transformed into a role player. A veteran locker-room leader, enjoyable teammate, sage, and life coach for younger Celtics. Also, a valuable rebounder and screener on the floor. It’s far from those days when he was jumping over Kias at All-Star Weekend, but Griffin is at peace with his role, his career, and his physical limitations.
Griffin has to work diligently on his conditioning because of his history. He missed his entire rookie season with a broken left kneecap. He also endured a torn quadriceps, a damaged right toe, a sprained MCL, and two arthroscopic knee surgeries while with Detroit.
“It took me more than a couple of weeks to truly get my legs underneath me here,” Griffin said, “but it’s a lot. It’s stuff at home. It’s how you eat, how you sleep, how you go about your whole life. That’s what the season is about.”
The Celtics knew they were acquiring a quality teammate who wanted to escape drama in Brooklyn and be part of a championship culture. Griffin is not consumed with his past. Unlike many of his NBA contemporaries who were discarded from the league because they couldn’t accept or admit losing some of their physical prowess, Griffin has learned to accept a lesser role, but remains prepared when that role suddenly increases.
“It ebbs and it flows. It’s just about being self-aware,” he said. “I watch film. You know what you can do and what you can’t do and you have to be realistic about it, especially when you come to a team like this and you look around this locker room and you see guys who play both ends and are very capable of going for 30 [points].
“Just be real with yourself, to be honest, and have good people around you.”
The TD Garden crowd quickly revered Griffin, knowing his prosperous past and appreciating the sacrifice he made to sign a veteran’s minimum contract just to play occasional minutes. Monday was his eighth appearance in 21 games.
Coach Joe Mazzulla doesn’t want to waste Griffin in garbage time, and there’s been a lot of those lately for the Celtics. He’d rather save his veteran forward for times when he’s really needed, such as when Horford rests the second game of a back-to-back.
The two have an understanding, and Mazzulla respects Griffin’s professionalism and impact.
“He gives us exactly what we expected, and we have a lot of depth and the season is very long,” Mazzulla said. “He can give us a lot. He’s really physical. He screens well. His ability to crash the offensive glass and his defensive communication is really good with the system that we have. There are going to be moments when we need him.”
Griffin is fully aware of the notion that he no longer can dunk; he responded Monday with two. The irony is not lost on the man who was once heavily criticized as being only a dunker. Now the public is clamoring for those days.
He doesn’t wallow in what he can no longer do. Griffin is just trying to give them the best of what he’s got now.