Sunday basketball notes

For Griffin, this season is one big makeup game

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 6, 2011

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The Clippers’ practice facility was a lively place eight days ago. The coaches were giggling with players during a post-shootaround free throw session. Baron Davis was walking around with a wide grin. DeAndre Jordan couldn’t keep a smile off his face.

There was anticipation for that night’s game against the Bobcats.

Only one person, dripping with sweat, was frowning. That was rookie Blake Griffin, who took the shootaround as seriously as if it were the final of the Big 12 tournament. Griffin was working arduously on his post game, taking nothing for granted.

Perhaps that was because one year ago, while the Clippers were on the road, Griffin was working in the same facility by himself. It was a lonely feeling, spending your first NBA season rehabilitating from knee surgery while your team suffered on the court.

Doubts surfaced as to whether the 2008-09 John Wooden Award winner and consensus first-team All-American would fully recover from a broken kneecap. Had he been bitten by the Clippers curse?

Griffin does have fun. But his fun comes in accomplishments, and he has a lot of making up to do. So until he compensates, there will be frowns and scowls.

He became the first rookie to be voted into the All-Star Game by the league’s coaches since Tim Duncan in 1998. He is averaging 22.9 points and 12.7 rebounds and has left dozens of opponents posterized from his dunks. That mention got a slight grin. Nothing more.

“I think it’s all about opportunity,’’ Griffin said. “I had some things I wanted to do, but I still wanted to play better and better. It’s an honor but I have a long way to get to where I want to be.’’

Neither LeBron James, nor Carmelo Anthony, nor Dwyane Wade earned an All-Star selection as a rookie. They spent their first All-Star Weekend playing in the Rookie-Sophomore Game.

Griffin is the Clippers’ go-to player, already drawing double-teams and cheap shots from opponents. And he has accomplished this with former All-Star Chris Kaman out most of the season with an ankle injury. His partner in the paint has been third-year center Jordan, a former second-round pick who has been one of the league’s most improved players.

“I’m just taking everything as a positive and continuing to work — there’s a chip on my shoulder,’’ said Jordan, who is averaging 6.9 points and 7.1 rebounds. “I told myself this summer I was going to be ready if I played 10 minutes or if I played 40 minutes.

“It’s real fun [playing with Griffin]. Seeing that they double- and triple-team him a lot, it frees me up a lot. And on the defensive end, we help each other out to get more transition buckets. I really love playing with him and hopefully I can play with him for years to come.’’

The tandem has catapulted the Clippers to sixth in the league in rebounding average, and the two have taken turns with highlight-reel dunks, such as Jordan’s tomahawk on Milwaukee’s Jon Brockman this past week.

Griffin has also brought a toughness to the Clippers not seen since their playoff teams of the early 1990s.

Rookies aren’t usually so eager to become enforcers, but Griffin hasn’t backed down from altercations with players such as Lamar Odom and James Posey; the latter refused to shake hands after a 47-point Griffin effort. That’s a sign of respect.

Griffin has no issue with dunking on some of the league’s established players, then staring at them with a frozen, sullen expression.

But he is a long way from enjoying his success. He feels indebted because he was unable to help his teammates last season. He spent the entire year trying to get healthy, and when he was cleared for full workouts in the summer, he spent most of his time at the practice facility.

“I just want to be one of the best,’’ he said matter-of-factly. “And my mind-set when I work is to work toward that point. I set extremely high goals for myself.

“I remember those workouts in the summer. At the time, it was kind of a lonely process. But to me it was fun to fall in love with the process of becoming a good player.

“You have to really enjoy it. The fun part for me is going out during games and doing some of the things you worked on. That’s the stuff that makes me addicted to the game.’’

Award leaders are emerging The NBA season is halfway done, and candidates for regular-season awards have begun to emerge. However, there appears to be very few clear-cut leaders, except for Rookie of the Year.

There remains heavy competition for MVP, Sixth Man, Most Improved Player, Defensive Player of the Year, and Coach of the Year.

As for the All-Star teams, there are very few gripes with the Eastern Conference selections. But the Western Conference has many issues, including the omission of LaMarcus Aldridge, who has led the Blazers into playoff contention without the help of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden.

The Western coaches voted in Tim Duncan, who has been effective in a limited role with limited minutes. But is he really playing at an All-Star level, or was his election a nod to a great career?

The answer is the latter, and the discouraging part is that productive power forwards such as Aldridge, Kevin “Double-Double’’ Love, and Zach Randolph suffer as a result, though Love was named the All-Star replacement for Yao Ming.

Here are our Half-Season Awards. The purpose is to create some debate, and there should be plenty:

MVP LeBron James, Miami: The most despised man in the NBA is in the midst of a brilliant season. After a rough early stretch, James has blended in well with Dwyane Wade, and his numbers haven’t suffered much. He is averaging 26.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 7.4 assists. James is taking 1 1/2 fewer shots than last season but has led Miami to second place in the Eastern Conference. Of course, he is a PR nightmare and seemingly has embraced his villain role. But he is the league’s best player, without a doubt.

Sixth Man Glen Davis, Boston: Big Baby has made Celtics fans forget about Rasheed Wallace with his production off the bench. There are sixth men who average more points and more rebounds, but Davis is the best reserve contributor on a championship-caliber team. This is his free agent year, so a spike in his numbers was expected. But he also has shown a maturity and development in his game.

Most Improved Player Dorell Wright, Golden State: For those who believe Love, Aldridge, or Russell Westbrook belongs here, think again. “Most improved’’ means just that, not “more developed.’’ A third-year player who was a lottery pick should not qualify for most improved. Wright, who entered the draft out of high school and languished the past few years in Miami, has more than doubled his scoring average from last year and has already played more minutes than he did all of last season. He badly needed new scenery and an opportunity for his game to blossom.

Defensive Player Tyson Chandler, Dallas: For years, the Mavericks needed a defensive-minded center with athleticism, and that doesn’t include Erick Dampier. Chandler came over from Charlotte in a fleecing and has been the difference with Dallas. He has always focused on defense and rebounding first because he never developed his offensive arsenal, and that fits perfectly with a club that has been offense-heavy. Chandler affects countless shots with his length, and his rebounding prowess earns the Mavericks extra possessions.

Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich, San Antonio: In the preseason, this column listed the Spurs as a team on the decline because it was aging. But Popovich added a couple of younger pieces, limited Duncan’s minutes to increase his effectiveness, and induced a standout season from Richard Jefferson. San Antonio is cruising to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, meaning the bumbling Lakers will have to reach the Finals without home-court advantage.

Rookie of the Year Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers: No need for an explanation here. With the most impressive rookie season since Shaquille O’Neal with Orlando in 1992-93, he has single-handedly made Clippers basketball significant.

Winners New York Knicks: They are finally relevant again with the addition of Amar’e Stoudemire and Raymond Felton, and barring a major collapse, they will make the playoffs for the first time in seven years.

New Orleans Hornets: Not only did they hold on to Chris Paul, but general manager Dell Demps made some shrewd deals to become a factor in the West. The fans finally came out, and the team’s lease in the Crescent City was extended at least another year.

Kevin Love, Minnesota: He is closing in on superstar status because of his ability to score and rebound. He has embarrassed teams at times by plucking balls off the boards at an alarming rate — and that includes the Celtics, who allowed him to nab 24 rebounds.

Losers Carmelo Anthony, Denver: His passive-aggressive stance regarding his desire to play in New York has ruined the season for Denver and has players such as Wilson Chandler and Landry Fields wondering whether they will be dealt to the Nuggets in coming weeks. Anthony needs to either keep quiet or demand a trade. Quit waffling.

Washington Wizards: 0-25 on the road, huh? This team was supposed to make a run at the playoffs but is becoming everybody’s homecoming game. The Wizards have more talent than this. Maybe the problem is the coaching.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Losing 34 of 35 games is pretty hard to do in professional sports, so let’s give the Cavs credit for being so awful. Everyone expected a drop-off after LeBron left, but an anvil off a cliff? This is particularly sad.

Shaq’s defense fends off critics Shaquille O’Neal is a student of the game, especially in the past few years, as his career has progressed toward its conclusion. And he has listened to every shot taken at him by pundits, experts, and former players, especially Bill Walton.

O’Neal is keenly aware of his strengths and weakness, having acknowledged that poor free throw shooting cost him a chance at the 30,000-point mark. But he also ranks himself among the all-time greats, which he should.

Walton is the Joe Namath of professional basketball, an all-time great known more for moments in championship seasons than a long and distinguished career.

For Namath, it was Super Bowl III. For Walton, it was leading Portland to its lone championship in 1977 and nine years later helping the Celtics to the 1986 title in a lesser role after years of foot injuries.

Whether Walton is one of the all-time great centers is up for debate. He had a stellar career at UCLA and was dominant in his first few years in Portland, but he played in a total of 468 NBA games.

While the Celtics were preparing to begin shootaround Tuesday in Sacramento, with Walton watching from the opposite baseline, O’Neal addressed Walton’s assessment of his career.

“I don’t worry about my legacy,’’ said O’Neal. “I look at it like this. If certain guys have legacies in this game and I have [expletive] tripled and quadrupled what the [expletive] they did, like Bill Walton, I’m straight. That’s how I look at it. Real talk.

“Everybody has a pen, so you know everyone is going to say otherwise. I know guys that are getting $60,000 speaking gigs over what they did 30 years ago.

“My legacy is straight. I don’t worry about it.’’

O’Neal continues to be a marketing giant despite no longer being an All-Star player. He said he smartly invested his money early in his career, so he’s set financially.

“There’s a time to be loud and a time to chill, and I’m 38, it’s time to chill,’’ he said. “I could have quit a long time ago. I won four [championships] and now I’m trying to get five.

“I’ve prepared myself for that [retirement] day. For like the first 10 years of my career, my father would tell me, ‘You need to own some [things],’ and I said, ‘Why? I make a lot of money.’ My father said, ‘What if you hurt your knee?’ It wasn’t like I was really in business mode, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.’’

Uncertainties riddle Pacers The Jim O’Brien firing in Indiana should come as no shock because the former Celtics coach was getting consistently outcoached and did little to cultivate the Pacers’ young talent. He decided not to play Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and Tyler Hansbrough, intent instead on making a run for this year’s playoffs. Indiana is just one game out of the eighth spot, but team president Larry Bird has reiterated that the team is building for next season. The salaries of Mike Dunleavy, Jeff Foster, T.J. Ford, and Jamaal Tinsley will come off the books, making the Pacers players in the free agent market. Owner Herb Simon gave Bird the infamous vote of confidence, but Bird doesn’t seem particularly happy running the Pacers. Indiana is his home, but he seems annoyed at the difficulty of building a team in a smaller market. The uncertainty about a new collective bargaining agreement doesn’t add to Bird’s enthusiasm for next season.

Layups The Timberwolves just made arena matters more complicated in the Twin Cities by asking for $155 million to renovate Target Center. The Vikings are also seeking a new stadium after the roof of the Metrodome collapsed during football season. Amazingly, the Target Center is the fourth-oldest arena in the NBA, despite being only 20 years old, a testament to commissioner David Stern’s crusade to have a new building for every NBA team. Only the Bradley Center (Milwaukee), Arco Arena (Sacramento), and Madison Square Garden (New York) are older . . . Don’t expect the Lakers to make any deals, as general manager Mitch Kupchak suggested last week. Los Angeles has a bunch of bad contracts, having re-signed players from title teams such as Luke Walton and Derek Fisher to bloated deals. And there are no younger pieces to deal to teams that would have to take on a bad contract, too . . . And if Stephen Jackson is moved before the trade deadline, it won’t be to Dallas. The Mavericks have expressed little interest in the mercurial small forward.

Gary Washburn can be reached at Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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