When Blake Griffin made his first post-buyout return to Little Caesars Arena on March 26, he was a different player than the one who departed the Detroit Pistons more than a month prior. He scored 17 points on just eight shots, marking one of his most efficient scoring outbursts of the season up to that point, and helped lead the Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant-less Brooklyn Nets to a close 113-111 victory.
Griffin slammed in two thunderous dunks against his former team after zero dunks in 20 games in Detroit this season, and just five in 18 games last season. He baited Isaiah Stewart into an ejection during the second quarter, and gave Saddiq Bey a light shove during the fourth quarter after the rookie attempted to blow by him for a dunk.
It was the beginning of the Griffin redemption tour. The five-time All-Star looks re-energized in Brooklyn after one-and-a-half down seasons with the Pistons, and has emerged as a key playoff contributor for the Eastern Conference contender.
It wasn’t clear what was next for Griffin after he reached a buyout agreement with the Pistons in March, leaving $13.3 million of his $75 million owed from the Pistons on the table. He’s since proven that he still has productive basketball left in the tank.
His regular season averages in 26 games with the Nets — 10 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists — are a decrease from the 12.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists he averaged in Detroit. But his efficiency was significantly better with Brooklyn while playing substantially fewer minutes. He shot 49.2% overall, 38.3% from behind the arc and 78.2% at the line. His splits with the Pistons: 36.5/31.5/71.
Griffin’s 18-point, 14-rebound, two-steal and four 3-pointer performance against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Saturday illustrated how valuable he can be. The Nets started him at center, and he delivered while playing his first semifinals game since 2015.
“I think when I was coming to this team, one of the things I felt like I could bring was some physicality and some plays like that,” Griffin said after the game. “You kind of have to fill those holes somewhere.”
Compared to his final 38 games with the Pistons, Griffin has looked more like his old self with his new team. He’s dunked 23 total times in Brooklyn through the regular season and playoffs, and is contributing toward winning. His resurgence has been so jarring that a national narrative — at least among the hot-takier media personalities — has begun to emerge that Griffin is simply playing harder now.
“I told you, the brother could play,” Stephen A. Smith told Max Kellerman on ESPN’s “First Take” on Monday. “He just didn’t want to play in Detroit. That’s what that was all about … diving for loose balls on the floor, energizing the crowd in Brooklyn like Dennis Rodman did at the Palace of Auburn Hills.”
“Blake owes Detroit money,” Kellerman added.
Let the record show that Griffin did dive for loose balls for the Pistons, including during practices and inconsequential preseason games. He recovered 13 loose balls and drew 11 charges with the Pistons during the regular season, and 16 loose balls and 11 charges with the Nets, per NBA Stats. If diving for loose balls is the proper way to gauge Griffin’s effort level, there’s not much difference between his separate stints in Detroit and Brooklyn.
The difference in Griffin’s play can most likely be attributed to two things — Griffin has found his rhythm after missing nearly a full year of live NBA action, and he’s thriving in a lesser role than what the Pistons needed from him. He’s no longer carrying franchise player responsibilities and playing starters minutes.
Alongside Durant, Irving and James Harden, Griffin is often the third or fourth option on the floor. He’s on a roster with better spacing than the Pistons could offer, and he can pick his spots better without the burden of being the main player the opposing defense is keying in on.
As an example, Griffin shot 34.6% on his 2.6 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers per game with the Pistons, and attempted more pull-up 3-pointers (3.3) than catch-and-shoot 3-pointers on worse efficiency (29.2%). In Brooklyn, he shot 45.5% on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. His pull-up 3-point attempts were substantially reduced, as he took just 0.9 per game.
His Synergy numbers lay out his improvement as a shooter even more starkly. He was in the 19.4th percentile with the Pistons. In Brooklyn, he’s in the 91.9th percentile.
Here’s another example — Griffin’s taking 51% of his shots at the rim with the Nets, his highest total since the 2013-14 season according to Cleaning The Glass. With the Pistons this season, he took a career-low 22% off his shots at the rim. He’s mostly removed mid-range shots from his arsenal. The Nets use Griffin as a roller during pick-and-rolls significantly more than the Pistons did, because they have the personnel to do it.
Griffin knew that he would have an easier time in Brooklyn, and while his improved play has been surprising in some ways, it was also expected. The Pistons wanted Griffin to return to being the franchise player he was in 2018-19, when he averaged a career-best 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists and earned third-team All-NBA honors to lead Detroit to the playoffs.
Griffin intended to become that player again. He ultimately wasn’t suited for the 31-minute a night workload. The Pistons opted not to put him on a minute restriction, instead choosing to rest him during back-to-backs. The Nets could rest him during back-to-backs and play him less, running him about 21.5 minutes per game during the regular season. That was almost 10 fewer minutes per game than he played in Detroit. Brooklyn has also been conservative with him during the playoffs. His 35 minute-outing on Saturday was more than 10 minutes higher than his previous playoff high this season, and he played fewer than 20 minutes three times during their five-game series against the Boston Celtics in the opening round.
In the end, the Pistons shouldn’t regret parting ways with Griffin. There’s no guarantee he would’ve become this player had he finished the season in Detroit, and saving more than $13 million is a major win for the organization.
But it’s also a win for Griffin, who’s found a role he’s suited for with a team that’s a favorite to win the 2021 NBA championship.
“For two years, I didn’t hear much positivity and probably rightfully so,” Griffin said after Saturday’s win. “It’s pretty crazy how crazy it happened, so I’m just thankful for this chance and the opportunity.”