The Clippers made the most of what felt like a lost trip even with three wins in five games, but they returned to Los Angeles on Thursday facing an uncertain future related to Blake Griffin after the All-Star forward broke his right hand while punching a team assistant equipment manager in Toronto on Saturday. Here are five pressing issues as the ordeal continues to unfold:
1. What sort of punishment are the Clippers likely to levy against Griffin? It’s impossible to know exactly what Coach Doc Rivers and team owner Steve Ballmer are thinking, but based on the language in a harshly worded statement issued by the team after the altercation, a substantive suspension appears likely. Something in the range of three to five games seems reasonable because it would force Griffin to miss at least a week on top of the four to six weeks that his hand injury will sideline him. The Clippers could also fine Griffin, though that wouldn’t have much impact on someone who has already made more than $76 million in salary during his career. Griffin has already missed more than a month with a quadriceps injury. By the time Griffin returns, there may be only a month or less remaining in the regular season.
2. The Clippers have won 13 of 16 games without Griffin, so what’s the big deal? They have had only a handful of quality victories during their recent surge. They have won using smaller lineups, playing better defense and taking more three-pointers. Their stylistic shift has worked, which could present a quandary once Griffin returns. Do they try to integrate Griffin into the system they have adopted or go back to an offensive approach that relied heavily on Griffin taking long jump shots? The Clippers’ schedule also takes a much tougher turn starting after the All-Star break, with two games against the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder and one game each against the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers through the middle of March, which is likely to be the earliest Griffin would return.
3. What kind of reception is Griffin likely to receive when he returns to Staples Center? One loyal season-ticket holder has already emailed Griffin and Ballmer demanding Griffin provide a full explanation or he will ask for a refund, but it seems reasonable to expect that most Clippers fans will embrace Griffin upon his return, which could come as soon as Friday against the Lakers. He has been a charismatic, friendly member of the team since his rookie season and has shown remarkable restraint on the court when other players have tried to provoke him with physical play.
4. What will the atmosphere be like in the locker room between the men involved in the scuffle going forward? Things could be awkward for a while, but it probably helps that both Griffin and Testi are universally well-liked by Clippers players and staff members. There were some exasperated expressions in the locker room in recent days, but players supported both parties involved. It could be akin to the aftermath of a family squabble: There’s no choice but to stay together.
5. How is the rest of the team holding up after dealing with this? Better than could be expected. In retrospect, it seemed clear that the Clippers were rattled after some players learned of the altercation only hours before playing the Toronto Raptors on Sunday. They looked unfocused for much of their 112-94 defeat after a nice start. Then they went out and defeated the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks, two teams that will likely make the Eastern Conference playoffs, in consecutive days while relying primarily on tenacious defense, which requires mental focus and effort. Clippers Coach Doc Rivers called the back-to-back victories his team’s best of the season. The court has been a sanctuary for a team expected to miss one of its top players for an extended stretch. “We needed a lift,” Rivers said. “We went through a lot of stuff. Clutter is what I call it. And our guys, the best place for them is on the floor and they’re playing like that.”