HOUSTON — Young NBA players who don’t get much playing time have to make up for that deficit somehow. And over the course of a long, grueling season, practice scrimmages become few and far between.
So most often, while regular rotation players are staying off their feet and prioritizing rest, end-of-bench guys can be found playing intense pick-up games along with assistant coaches. But there are usually some exceptions.
Former stars approaching the tail-end of their careers tend to be reluctant to put even more wear and tear on their bodies, and even risk injury, by hopping into these battles. So when Celtics star Jayson Tatum looks over and sees six-time All-Star Blake Griffin running and jumping and hustling in a post-practice, full-court session, it leaves an impression.
“You just don’t see that with guys that were at his level,” Tatum said. “It’s been really unique to see. I appreciate that a lot. The guys do as well. He never makes it about himself, and it’s contagious. His energy, his enthusiasm, his personality. We’re all very fortunate to have him as a teammate, because everybody respects him and respects what he’s accomplished, and his voice carries.”
On Saturday night, getting a significant opportunity in coach Joe Mazzulla’s condensed eight-man rotation, Griffin provided a jolt for the Celtics at both ends of the court in their 134-125 win over the Hawks. Griffin, who turns 34 Thursday, registered 8 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, and 1 blocked shot in 15 minutes.
And his impact was felt in other ways. He set productive screens, took a charge, kept balls alive on offense, and came up with deflections on defense.
“I just like his overall mental, physical, emotional toughness that he brings to our team,” Mazzulla said. “I feel like he just makes the guys better when he’s on the floor.”
The Celtics have outscored opponents by 9.5 points per 100 possessions with Griffin on the court, the third-best net rating on the team and just 0.4 points behind Derrick White and Robert Williams.
“He lifts our group,” forward Al Horford said.
Mazzulla has been somewhat fickle with his frontcourt bench rotations with Williams sidelined with a strained hamstring, and he often says his choices are dictated by matchups. But over the past two games — both Celtics wins — Griffin clearly moved ahead of Grant Williams, Luke Kornet, and Mike Muscala on the depth chart.
Griffin, for one, stressed that he’s not reading into this possible trend. He also knows Robert Williams will likely be back soon.
“If [Mazzulla] wants to go with somebody else and they think that’s the right matchup, then I’ll be on the bench cheering just like I was, just like those guys are right now,” Griffin said. “I think it probably will be matchup dependent while Rob’s out. There’s going to be games where we need other guys, so our job and what we’ve tried to do is just always stay ready.”
Griffin, who has never been to the Finals during his decorated career, made no secret that he signed a one-year deal with the Celtics in October primarily because they offered a chance to win. And he understood he was being brought in partly to be a steady locker room presence. But so far, both sides have gotten even more than they wished for.
“The guys on this team are awesome,” Griffin said. “Like, everybody’s genuinely happy for each other. When one of us gets thrown in there and we do well, the bench thrives, there’s energy, and we feed off each other. I’ve really enjoyed being around these guys. Helps to win a lot of games; but these guys are great.”
Added Tatum: “If somebody that has a Hall of Fame résumé can buy in and just be that selfless, it just carries throughout the entire team … However many minutes he gets, you know he’s going to bust his [butt].”