Blake Griffin wore Detroit’s blue warmups Thursday night at Staples Center while sitting in the seat closest to Dwane Casey’s coaching staff. During timeouts, the forward stood near the back of the huddle. After his Pistons teammates made baskets, he clapped.
He did everything but play, his hurt left knee keeping him off the court for the fifth time in Detroit’s last nine games, but Griffin’s influence was felt nonetheless.
Not only during the Clippers’ 126-112 victory, but all season.
From his sideline seat, the six-time All-Star forward watched a Clippers roster whose assembly began two years before, when the organization that drafted Griffin first overall in 2009 and made him its face dealt him to Detroit and set in motion a whirlwind roster rebuild. The picks, players and cap space acquired by the Clippers in Griffin’s trade beget more moves, with Philadelphia, Memphis and the Lakers, eventually culminating in the late-night trade July 5 with Oklahoma City that added star forward Paul George. His inclusion in the deal helped secure Kawhi Leonard’s free-agency commitment.
Coach Doc Rivers said he believed all along that trading Griffin could transform the Clippers into Western Conference title contenders again. But, he added, “We didn’t know when.”
It has happened quickly. The possibility of an on-the-fly Clippers rebuild was plain to see a year ago, when Griffin faced his old team as a visitor for the first time since being dealt and scored 44 points in a Detroit victory. But it wasn’t until Thursday’s visit that the effects of the trade felt full-circle.
Griffin’s trade eventually helped the Clippers land players including guard Landry Shamet, who scored eight points while starting in place of the injured Patrick Beverley; center Ivica Zubac, who scored eight points and blocked four shots; JaMychal Green, who added 12 points and 12 rebounds off the bench; and George, who scored 12 points in 16 minutes before leaving in the second quarter with tightness in his left hamstring.
Rodney McGruder started in George’s place after halftime, and finished with four points in his 14 minutes.
“Nothing happened, he just felt tightness, said it at halftime and then we just decided not to bring him back,” Rivers said. “He’s going to be evaluated, clearly. I think it’s the back more than the legs.”
The injury cut short George’s best shooting performance in nearly two weeks. He made five of his 10 shots and was aggressive at the start hunting the kinds of drives he said were missing at the start of his slump.
“I liked how he came off the pick and roll and made shots,” Rivers said. “It’s still a matter of rhythm with him and I think he’s getting it.”
Clippers center Montrezl Harrell finished with a game-high 23 points and Lou Williams, playing two days after the birth of his son, added 22 to lead a bench that scored 68 points. Kawhi Leonard added 18 points, six rebounds and five assists, and Maurice Harkless nearly notched a double-double with 12 points and nine rebounds.
“We’ve had games like this,” Williams said. “I thought Trez played solid, I played solid. ... It shows how deep we are, we keep going.”
Nine Pistons scored in double figures but none had more than Bruce Brown’s 15. In his first NBA start, Sekou Doumbouya had an unenviable assignment — guarding Leonard. He earned three quick fouls trying to shadow the reigning NBA Finals MVP but finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Rivers credited Griffin, along with former Lob City teammates DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul as “very important into getting this thing rolling into a place where people wanted to come.” If Griffin changed the Clippers’ long-term trajectory both in his rise to stardom and the aftereffects from his stunning exit, his absence has also led to short-term struggles for his new team.
The Pistons have lost eight of their last nine games, a stretch that coincides with his injury troubles, with each defeat coming by at least 12 points. Against the Clippers, however, they didn’t start like a team careening toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference’s Central Division, leading 33-30 at the end of the first quarter behind a scrappy effort. At halftime the Pistons had scored 63 to trail by six points, turning eight sloppy Clippers turnovers into 15 points.
The bottom fell out during a third quarter in which the Clippers outscored Detroit by 19. The advantage grew so lopsided, to 31 points, that it became impossible for Detroit to recover, even after a 22-4 run in the fourth quarter cut the lead to 10 with 1:22 remaining in the final quarter.
“It’s a win, it should have been a win, they were banged up, they had guys out, they were on the road, so we took care of business,” Rivers said. “We did our jobs, basically, tonight.”
Beverley missed his second consecutive game with a sprained right wrist, though Rivers said Beverley was “really close” to returning and could return “maybe in the next couple games.” … One week after All-Star game voting opened to fans, Leonard and George rank third and fourth among vote-getters in the Western Conference frontcourt, the NBA announced Thursday. Fans account for 50% of voting to determine the game’s 10 starters, with current NBA players and media accounting for 25% each.