Blake Griffin was back to being the guy who once dunked over the hood of a Kia during All-Star weekend.
Only this time the game counted and there was a different, albeit similarly immobile prop: Portland Trail Blazers center Mason Plumlee.
Griffin cleared Plumlee with ease on three occasions Sunday night at Staples Center during the Clippers’ playoff opener, the surest sign that the power forward has recovered from the injuries that sidelined him more than half the season.
“Oh, man, it’s everything for us,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul said Monday of Griffin’s assertiveness around the basket.
The Trail Blazers knew entering the playoffs that Paul would be a headache on both ends of the court, that DeAndre Jordan would disrupt their offense and that shooting guard J.J. Redick would run them into a dizzying series of circles to free himself for jumpers.
What was unclear was whether Griffin would be a dynamic, above-the-rim force or a more passive jump shooter. Griffin went from a question mark to an exclamation point midway through the first quarter when he bowled over Portland’s Damian Lillard in the lane before rising over Plumlee for a left-handed dunk as he was fouled.
Griffin attacked again midway through the third quarter when he drove around a pick set by Paul and then soared over the contesting Plumlee for another left-handed dunk. His final dunk over Plumlee came in transition only minutes later, when he caught a pass from Paul and dunked with both hands while Plumlee futilely grabbed his right arm.
To be fair to Plumlee, he wasn’t the only Trail Blazer who failed to stop Griffin. Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu also had moments to forget, particularly early in the game.
“He just kind of bulldozed his way to the rim and it’s tough with a guy that’s athletic and strong like him,” Lillard said afterward. “If you get too physical then it’s a foul because he’s spinning in there and jumping in the middle with the spin.”
Clippers guard Chris Paul is fouled by Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum during a battle for the ball in the fourth quarter of Game 1.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Clippers center Cole Aldrich looks to pass to a teammate before Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard can steal the ball during the fourth quarter of Game 1.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Clippers guard Jamal Crawford makes despite the defensive effort of Trail Blazers guard Allen Crabbe during Game 1.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Clippers center DeAndre Jordan is fouled by Trail Blazers center Mason Plumlee while attempting a shot during Game 1 on Sunday.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Clippers forward Blake Griffin dunks over Blazers center Mason Plumlee, who is called for a foul on the play in Game 1 on Sunday night at Staples Center.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Clippers center DeAndre Jordan blocks a layup by Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard during the first half of Game 1 of the Western Conference playoffs on Sunday.(Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)
Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) and center DeAndre Jordan, right, try to steal the ball from fallen Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard during the first half of Game 1.(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
Clippers guard Chris Paul is pressured by Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard on a drive during the first half of Game 1 on Sunday.(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
Clippers forward Wesley Johnson blocks a shot by Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard during the first half of Game 1.(Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images)
The Trail Blazers couldn’t help but continually send Griffin to the free-throw line, where he made nine of 12 attempts.
Griffin scored 10 of the Clippers’ first 18 points, matching the 10.4 points he had averaged in his first five games back from a layoff of more than three months because of hand and quadriceps injuries, plus a four-game suspension for punching a team assistant equipment manager.
Griffin’s outburst helped offset the Clippers’ lack of three-point shots as the Trail Blazers defense continually ran Redick off the arc. The Clippers attempted a season-low two three-pointers in the first half, missing both. They still led by eight points at halftime thanks to Griffin.
“Getting some stuff around the rim was key for me,” said Griffin after the game. “We just kept it going and played really, really well.”
Griffin mostly operated around the basket while making five of 10 shots. He often drove early in the shot clock before the defense was fully set and avoided spacing issues with fellow big man Jordan.
Griffin took only two jumpers, missing both, but hasn’t given up that aspect of his game. He still spends long stretches before and after practice working on his mid-range jumpers with shooting coach Bob Thate.
Griffin played 31 minutes in Game 1 and said he felt “pretty close to how I want to feel.” He is essentially unrestricted heading into Game 2 on Wednesday night at Staples Center, though the Trail Blazers will surely try to find a new way to limit his efficiency around the basket.
“It may not be like that Game 2,” Paul said of the way Griffin dominated in the opener, “but him being out there on the court like that is priceless.”