Once upon a time, Blake Griffin was a Kardashian-dating superstar. He was the square-jawed leading man for the Los Angeles Clippers who became a celebrity in his own right when he leaped over a car to win the dunk contest.
After he had a couple of rough seasons in Detroit, those glory days were far back in the rearview mirror at the start of this season. Griffin may have gone to the All-Star Game six times, but he was coming to terms with the fact that he no longer was a franchise player.
Still, Griffin thought he still could be the type of player who impacted games and play the kind of basketball that mattered to him. So he took a pay cut, came to play with some superstar friends in Brooklyn and vowed to do whatever they needed to win.
On Saturday night, he kept that promise, transforming himself into the hustling, hard-fouling presence that the Nets needed to set the tone in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The 32-year-old Griffin scored 18 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and made two steals in the Nets’ 115-107 victory. But more importantly, he dived for loose balls, forced two jump balls and used all six of his fouls. He went from a player who leaped over cars to one who dismissively stepped over Thanasis Antetokounmpo after knocking him to the floor.
It was exactly the type of performance the Nets needed after losing James Harden less than a minute into the game because of hamstring tightness. And it’s exactly the kind of performance they are going to continue to need; they announced Sunday that Harden will miss Monday’s Game 2.
"Well, man, when he plays like that, it just ignites the whole crowd," Kevin Durant said. "It ignites our team when he’s down on the floor playing tough and big as a center."
Added coach Steve Nash: "Blake was great. He worked and persevered. He got an opportunity to play extended minutes tonight and was outstanding . . . His energy and fight was outstanding."
Griffin had two really tone-setting moments in the game. The first came in the second quarter when he did a belly- flop dive toward Bobby Portis in an attempt to steal the ball. The two ended up wrestling on the floor for a couple of seconds before things could be broken up.
The second came late in the fourth quarter after he picked up his sixth foul and stepped over Giannis Antetokounmpo’s older brother. Griffin was given a standing ovation as he headed to the bench.
He said it had been a while since he felt love like that.
"It felt good," Griffin said. "I’ve sort of talked about it, but for two years I kind of like didn’t hear much positivity. And probably rightfully so. But it’s pretty crazy how quickly it happens. So I’m just thankful for the chance and opportunity."
Griffin understood where he stood when he signed on to play with Harden, Durant and Kyrie Irving. He knew there were some things that he could bring to the team that could complement their game and make the Nets better.
"When I was coming to this team, one of the things I felt I could bring was some physicality and some plays like that," he said. "At this point [of my career], being a part of something bigger than yourself takes precedence.
"So you do whatever it takes."