The wait for Blake Griffin’s punishment is over. Guessing when he might play again involves far less clarity.
The four-game suspension the Clippers handed their star power forward Tuesday for his role in a recent altercation with a team assistant equipment manager will be served only after Griffin fully recovers from the broken right hand he sustained in the fight, which is expected to sideline him until March.
The Clippers also said they would withhold Griffin’s wages for one additional game and will donate the money from the five games — $859,440 — to disadvantaged youth in Los Angeles. The NBA assisted the Clippers in the investigation and determining the extent of the punishment.
Griffin repeatedly punched Matias Testi on Jan. 23 at a restaurant in Toronto after teasing that went too far for Griffin’s liking, leaving the equipment manager with a swollen face.
“He understands his actions have consequences and is eager to get back to work with his teammates, the organization and Clipper Nation, which starts immediately with rehab, appearances and attendance at games.”
Testi was not disciplined by the Clippers and is expected to rejoin the team, though neither he nor Griffin traveled with the Clippers on a four-game trip that ends Wednesday against the Boston Celtics. Clippers players have universally said they would welcome both their teammate and the popular staffer back into their locker room.
“I definitely feel for both parties,” Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who attended the dinner when the scuffle broke out, said recently.
Paparazzi have stalked Griffin and Testi since the altercation, with photographers encamped outside Testi’s residence and TMZ releasing a photo showing Griffin’s surgically repaired hand. Griffin has not commented publicly since the incident, except for an apology on Twitter two weeks ago.
The team said after Griffin underwent surgery Jan. 25 to repair the bone in his right hand that he would sit out from four to six weeks, though Rivers admitted at the time he believed that estimate to be overly optimistic.
The Clippers will play the Dallas Mavericks on March 7, exactly six weeks after Griffin’s procedure. If he was cleared to play in that game and began serving his suspension, he would miss the next four games and could return March 15 against the San Antonio Spurs. That would leave Griffin with 17 games to prepare for the playoffs.
Griffin was having a strong season before the incident, averaging 23.2 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists while shooting 50.8%, but he was not selected an All-Star for the first time in his six NBA seasons because of his prolonged absence.
Self-restraint had also been an ongoing issue. Griffin was among the league leaders in technical fouls and was ejected from a game against Phoenix in November after receiving two technical fouls and another game against the Chicago Bulls in December after picking up a flagrant-2 foul for hitting Taj Gibson in the head, though the latter ejection was the result of an unintended blow.
Griffin has not played since Christmas, when the pain from a partially torn left quadriceps tendon became unbearable during a game against the Lakers.
The Clippers have gone 18-4 in Griffin’s absence while using smaller lineups and shooting more three-pointers. Paul Pierce and Wesley Johnson have been the primary starters at power forward, resulting in some unconventional lineups that have largely benefited the Clippers.
“It’s not like we have a lot of choice in the matter — you lose Blake, you’re going to get smaller,” Rivers said Monday. “And so instead of just putting a traditional power forward in his place, we decided to put Paul and Wesley and that’s a dramatic change from Blake. Because really that’s the only way I thought we could be effective. I didn’t think we could have a traditional lineup.
“I’m hoping in the long run it helps us because we needed to have two lineups anyway. We were not very successful in the first half of the year with our small lineup, which we thought we would be, quite honestly, so this kind of forced our hand. So now we’re good at it. When Blake comes back, we have two lineups we can play and I think in the long run that will make us pretty good.”
The Clippers have also continually improved on defense, a trajectory that Rivers said started before Griffin was sidelined by his quadriceps injury.
The team lost another member of its playing rotation last week when backup guard Austin Rivers broke his left hand against the Minnesota Timberwolves but has gone 3-0 in Rivers’ absence to maintain its hold on fourth place in the Western Conference standings. That would give the Clippers home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs if they can stay in that spot or move higher.
Several Clippers players have praised Doc Rivers for his ability to stabilize the team amid the Griffin fiasco. Crisis management has become part of the job for a coach who also steered his players through former owner Donald Sterling’s racially charged remarks almost two years ago that resulted in a lifetime ban from the NBA and Ballmer’s takeover of the team.
“Everything that happens, you try to turn into a teaching lesson for your players,” Rivers said recently. “They’re still young. They’re still growing. They’re still learning life. It’s our job sometimes to teach life, teach life through the mistakes we’ve made.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch
Times correspondent Eric Pincus contributed to this report.