LOS ANGELES — Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin turned in an emphatic, 44-point performance in his first meeting at Staples Center against his former team, as the Pistons prevailed over the LA Clippers, 109-104, on Saturday.
“It was nice to get that game over with,” Griffin said. “I kind of compare it to the first game of the year in a way. There’s such a big hype leading up to it, and then once it’s done, you have to play 81 more. Now we have to play 41 more or whatever it is. It’s over and I’m moving on, they’re moving on.”
The sold-out crowd at Staples Center received Griffin warmly during player introductions. During the first timeout of the game, the Clippers honored Griffin with a video tribute, a compilation of career highlights and some of his trademark endorsement campaigns. After the presentation, Griffin received a rousing standing ovation and waved to the crowd.
“I didn’t see all of it, but I saw bits and pieces,” Griffin said of the video. “It was really cool to be welcomed back like that. It means a lot. I appreciate all these fans here.”
In late December, Griffin told ESPN that, as a player who is propelled by emotions, he imagined Saturday’s game would be a passionate event. After the game, Griffin said that when he woke up Saturday morning, that sense of anticipation wasn’t as acute as he expected.
“I thought I did a good job for the most part [of managing emotions],” Griffin said. “I’ve played in some big games, and it was easier than I thought. I wasn’t overhyped — I was properly hyped.”
Griffin dominated the action in the first half, scoring 26 points on 10 field goal attempts — including 3-for-6 beyond the arc — before intermission. As the Clippers cut a double-digit lead to two points in the fourth quarter, Griffin drained a layup inside of the three-minute mark over two defenders to give Detroit a 107-99 lead. He also assisted on two crucial 3-pointers by Reggie Bullock, another former Clippers draftee, at a juncture when the Pistons were having a difficult time manufacturing baskets.
“When he’s got it going like that on offense, it’s tough for teams,” Bullock said. “They have to make an adjustment on the defensive end. They have to start doubling him. Once they double, it’s my time to shine.”
The Pistons held off the Clippers with a series of defensive spots, yielding only three field goals to Los Angeles in the final nine minutes of the game. Though Griffin largely downplayed the specific significance of his return, emphasizing the importance of the win for a team that had dropped nine of its previous 11 games, teammates and coaches expressed satisfaction on Griffin’s behalf.
“I thought [the win] meant a lot to him,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “The most important thing was his teammates were excited for it, and that is a sign of togetherness, and wanted to pull for your teammate, the success of your teammate. I thought that was really important.”
During the summer of 2017, the Clippers signed their homegrown star to a five-year maximum contract, pitching Griffin with an elaborate presentation that had the primary theme of “Clipper for Life.” Six months later, Griffin was traded to Detroit in a package deal in exchange for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and a 2018 first-round pick. Griffin learned of the transaction from a third party and has expressed misgivings about the process.
“Most trades and departures don’t go very well, for the record,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said during his pregame media availability. “They just don’t. They don’t go well. They all come back eventually.”
Prior to the game, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer waited for Griffin to conclude his warm-up routine. As Griffin finished, Ballmer called out to his former superstar from the sideline and extended his hand. Rather than greet Ballmer, Griffin made his signature nonstop sprint after his final shot from the court through the tunnel and to the locker room. At his postgame news conference, Griffin maintained that his longtime ritual took priority over any perceived snub.
It’s an impossible job that yields mostly poor results, so why does the NBA executive/coach still have a future in the league?
“For nine years now, as soon as I’m done doing my pregame shooting, I make sure there’s a path, and I take off running to the locker room and I don’t stop running,” Griffin said. “I don’t change that for anybody … That’s what it was, plain and simple. It wasn’t anything planned.”
Griffin exchanged words at the buzzer with Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, never one to extend hospitality to an opponent, but traded hugs with former teammates Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell.
Griffin was drafted first overall by the Clippers in the 2009 NBA draft. After missing the entirety of his first season to injury, he stormed onto the scene in 2010, winning Rookie of the Year in a unanimous vote and was selected to the All-Star Game five times as a Clipper. During Griffin’s tenure with the team, the Clippers enjoyed their most successful stretch in franchise history, including six consecutive playoff appearances.
“The best thing to be a part of is something bigger than yourself,” Griffin said. “That’s what it was. I don’t look at it like what I did.”
Rivers said that Griffin was the most vital presence in turning around the image of the previously woebegone Clippers franchise.
“Blake, individually, is the one who started it all,” Rivers said. “He’s the dunk contest winner. He wore a Clipper jersey. People understood. And now when you hear our name, you don’t think of those bad Clippers before Blake. So for me, Blake is the one who started that, so any success we had, in my opinion, from this point forward, is due to Blake, [DeAndre Jordan] and Chris [Paul] — and in that order.”