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Clippers hold their breath; Griffin’s season in jeopardy

Clippers hold their breath; Griffin’s season in jeopardy
Clippers forward Blake Griffin limps to the bench after being injured late in the fourth quarter against the Lakers. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Just when the Clippers had regained their footing on the way to winning their third consecutive game, just when power forward Blake Griffin was becoming surprisingly effective as their de facto point guard by displaying uncanny vision while he directed their offense, Griffin’s knee was twisted into an uncomfortable and untenable position in a collision Monday night and their season threatened to unravel again.

Griffin was pushed backward in a scramble for a loose ball with teammate Austin Rivers and Lakers guard Lonzo Ball, and Rivers fell onto Griffin’s left knee. Grifffin tried to stay in the game but couldn’t move well and left for the locker room with 3 minutes 53 seconds left.

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The Clippers went on to complete a rally and earn a 120-115 victory in front of an emotionally divided crowd at Staples Center, but the joy of their 11th consecutive home victory over the Lakers and 20th in their last 22 against their arena co-tenants was muted by Griffin’s injury. He had 26 points, 11 rebounds and six assists, including three-for-six shooting from three-point range.

“It didn’t look good obviously, but we just have to wait and see,” coach Doc Rivers said. “Lonzo was just trying to make a play. Lonzo knocked somebody into Blake. And there was a trigger effect. What can you say?”

Rivers, who said Griffin will be evaluated Tuesday, added a small but humorous laugh. He was probably more inclined to cry, and with good reason.

Griffin had been settling into his role as point guard, playing with the smarts of someone who has been a pure point guard all of his life. Someone like, say, Chris Paul.

But Paul and the Clippers went through a rancorous divorce last summer and his replacement, Patrick Beverley, is out for the season following knee surgery. Out of necessity the Clippers turned to their franchise player to save them — and to do it as a point guard, not Griffin’s natural power forward position.

It’s not unprecedented to have a big man at the point guard spot, and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons is establishing strong rookie-of-the-year credentials there this season. Griffin is continuing the evolution of the position, the big man playing the smaller man’s game and bringing the extra dimension of size and strength.

His performance Monday showed that it can work, though there will be some pitfalls for him and the Clippers if he continues there long-term.

“Chris is a point guard. Ball is a point guard but a lot of the guards now are two-way guards — they’re scorers and passers. That position has kind of changed,” Rivers said before the game. “I still love the pure point guards when you can get one but when you don’t, it’s all about your ball movement. And so the more passes you have the better.”

Speaking of Ball, the Lakers rookie had another poor shooting night, going one for seven, including one of six on three-point attempts, for three points, with seven assists.

The Clippers had a lot of that ball movement Rivers wanted, but it didn’t always go in the right direction. They committed 17 turnovers, three by Griffin. And as odd as it was to see Griffin as a point guard, it was all too familiar to see him moaning and complaining to the officials time after time.

He’s supposed to be their go-to guy, their face, their foundation, now that Paul is gone. He hasn’t been that franchise-lifting player to this point of his career with better talent than the Clippers have now. If he was ever going to carry the franchise, this was the time.

To his credit, he has expanded his game to include consistent and frequent three-point shooting. He was three for six from three-point range Monday and has hit at least one three-point shot in 19 consecutive games. His total of 41 three-point baskets is three more than he made last season.

Speaking before the game, Doc Rivers was optimistic about Griffin’s ability to adapt to the point guard spot.

“He’s clearly the guy every team’s trying to load up on and that’s new. He’s trying to figure that out, like trying to figure out how to move the ball. He’s got to trust guys that he’s never seen before … and never played with,” Rivers said. “It takes a lot. And I think over the last couple games he’s kind of gotten to a really good place there where he’s moving the ball, he’s attacking when he needs to attack, and that’s been better for us as well.”

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Now, Griffin and the Clippers wait to see the extent of the damage done to his knee.

“He’s not in high spirits. He’s down,” Doc Rivers said. “Right now he’s where we are at, hoping it was just a bang and that it hurt and that he’ll be all right.”

Their season might depend on it.

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