Blake Griffin said some strange thoughts entered his head as he slipped behind the Washington Wizards’ defense and prepared to take a lob from Chris Paul.
A player who once dunked after jumping over a car wasn’t sure if he could reach his usual elevation.
“I just remember it was the first time thinking, ‘Please don’t throw it too high,’ Griffin said, alluding to the effects of not playing for the Clippers for more than three months. “Normally, I’m ready to go for those.”
Griffin completed the play midway through the first quarter with his usual flair, grabbing the ball with two hands and slamming it through the rim. It was one of a handful of times Griffin recaptured his all-star form during the Clippers’ 114-109 victory Sunday at Staples Center.
There were also lots of less memorable moments in Griffin’s return after a 45-game absence. He missed five of seven shots, struggled to catch passes cleanly and appeared in less than optimal shape.
But if it didn’t exactly seem like old times, it was just enough of a reminder of what could be with Griffin back on the court.
“It’s just a confidence with him on the court that it brings to all of us,” Paul said.
Clippers forward Blake Griffin, left, collects a loose ball in front of Wizards guard Bradley Beal.(Chirstina House / For The Times)
Clippers center Cole Aldrich, right, gets tangled up with teammate Austin Rivers while fighting for the ball against Wizards forward Nené (left) on Apr. 3.(Christina House / For The Times)
Wizards guard Bradley Beal tries to save a loose ball next to Clippers forward Wes Johnson during the first half.(Christina House / For The Times)
Wizards center Marcin Gortat tips away a loose ball over Clippers forward Blake Griffin.(Christina House / For The Times)
Clippers guard Chris Paul battles for a rebound with Wizards forward Nené and and guard Bradley Beal in the fourth quarter Sunday.(Christina House / For The Times)
Clippers forward Blake Griffin returned to the lineup Sunday after a 45-game absence because of a broken hand, torn quadriceps and four-game suspension.(Christina House / For The Times)
Clippers forward Blake Griffin dunks against the Wizards in the first quarter Sunday.(Christina House / For The Times)
Griffin was in the starting lineup and played 24 minutes, tallying six points, five rebounds and four assists. Those numbers figure to experience a significant uptick over the Clippers’ final six games before the playoffs. Coach Doc Rivers said Griffin would sit out one of those games to rest.
The Clippers (48-28) clinched at least the No. 4 seeding in the Western Conference and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs after Paul took an inbounds pass with three seconds left on the shot clock, sidestepped Washington’s John Wall and pulled up for a three-pointer that provided a 113-107 lead with 22 seconds left.
Paul finished with 27 points and 12 assists, and Jamal Crawford scored 19 points off the bench for the Clippers.
It was Griffin’s first game since Christmas, when the pain from a partially torn left quadriceps tendon became unbearable. He also had to serve a four-game suspension for punching team assistant equipment manager Matias Testi, an incident in which Griffin broke his right hand.
Griffin said he stayed in shape by completing high-intensity workouts with his trainer while wearing a heart monitor that allowed him to mimic game situations.
There was a noticeable bump in the decibel level when Griffin was the last player introduced before the game. His passing skills were on display early in the first quarter when he found Luc Mbah a Moute for a give-and-go layup and then fed J.J. Redick for a step-back jumper.
There was a palpable buzz inside the arena even before Griffin scored his first points.
“He’s been out for what feels like the entire year,” said Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who had 12 points and 12 rebounds, “but just him being back, our energy was definitely a lot higher than what it has been the past couple of weeks.”
Griffin missed his first shot, a 14-foot jumper, off the side of the rim and clapped his hands in mild frustration. He backed down Bradley Beal in the second quarter but had the ball stripped. He then nearly lost a pass from Paul, getting saved from a turnover when the ball went out of bounds off the Wizards.
Griffin checked out earlier than normal in the first and third quarters and briefly played center as part of a small-ball lineup that Rivers said he intended to use during the playoffs. Griffin’s other basket came in the fourth quarter when he spun around Markieff Morris and banked in a one-handed driving layup.
There was an odd ending to Griffin’s news conference after the game. He got up and left the interview room with his son, Ford Wilson Cameron-Griffin, after tersely answering a question about whether he had to be careful not to damage his teammates’ rhythm upon his return.
“These guys are great basketball players,” Griffin said. “I think I’d have to do a lot to mess up their rhythm.”
With that, he was gone. The Clippers were just glad they wouldn’t have to wait three more months for him to come back.