In a weird bit of symmetry Wednesday night, one LA team played Lebron’s team, while the other LA team played LeBron’s old team.
The Miami Heat beat the Los Angeles Clippers 116-112 in Staples center despite Blake Griffin’s 43 points and 15 rebounds, and across the country the Los Angeles Lakers snapped a seven-game losing streak by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers, in part because of Kyrie Irving’s lackluster showing of 11 points and four assists.
The teams who won last night are headed in decidedly different directions that were already predetermined before the season even started. These Lakers were always going to struggle, and these Heat were always going to cruise into the playoffs as contenders. The story of last night was the teams that lost, and where the Clippers and Cavs are headed in the second half of the season and, more specifically, the paths of their two best players.
It’s time for me to admit I was wrong about Blake Griffin. I’ve said it all: he can’t score unless he dunks, he’ll never improve, he’s weak minded, he didn’t jump over the car and so on and so on. Well, yeah, I was wrong.
Since Chris Paul injured his shoulder January 3 against the Mavericks, Blake has flourished, showed touch from the outside as well as a more diverse offensive game than he has ever been given credit. Miami threw every defender it had at Blake last night – including Greg Oden and even Lebron for a long fourth quarter stretch – and not a single one of them had a chance.
Blake is currently playing through the first year of his five year max contract extension, and looking like he’s worth every dollar. In Paul’s absence, and even before his injury, Griffin has become the league’s most underrated player, a game-changer in the West, someone who commands double teams and changes the complexion of any game in an instant. He’s averaging a career high 23.3 points per game, good for eighth in the league, to go with his 9.7 rebounds per game, just outside of the top 10. The stats are impressive when you consider that he sharing the front court with the league leader in rebounds, Deandre Jordan.
Even Blake’s free throws have improved, as he’s inched his FT% to a career high 70% for the season, which makes it easier for him to attack the rim with reckless abandon and harder for teams to defend him and just hack away to get bailed out. As the Clippers head to the playoffs, Blake will be their most important player. We know what Chris Paul will give his team, and we also know just how far that will get them (Paul has never been past the second round of the playoffs). But with Blake playing like this, the Clippers are a legitimate threat to get past the Spurs and/or Thunder and see June for the first time ever. Remember, without an abundance of ACL tears this will be the first time the Clippers franchise has reached the postseason for three straight seasons in 38 years.
Meanwhile in Cleveland, at 16-33, the Cavs are the most disappointing team in the NBA this year. Seemingly ready to have a breakout season, Kyrie and his team have failed miserably. The Lakers were down to dressing eight healthy bodies last night. By game’s end, that number dwindled down to just five after Chris Kaman fouled out early in the fourth quarter. With minutes remaining in the game, Robert Sacre drew his final foul, which resulted in the unearthing of a very rarely used (or known) rule that allowed Sacre to stay in the game with the caveat being the Lakers would be charged with a technical foul if he committed any more personal fouls in the game (he didn’t). Even with these circumstances the Cavs still found a way to lose by double digits.
Irving, the East’s starting point guard in this year’s All Star Game, is leaning towards becoming the league’s most overrated player. After an iffy performance, Kyrie was benched midway through the third quarter by Mike Brown, who was at his wit’s end with Irving giving up 21 to Jordan Farmar and allowing Steve Blake record a triple double off the bench. Plenty of people who scoffed at the idea of Demarcus Cousins being an All Star blamed his team’s record, but fail to realize that the Kings actually have one more win than the Cavs.
Kyrie, who was ranked as the eighth best player in the league by ESPN before the season (a laughable list in hindsight), has respectable numbers (21.7 PPG, 6.2 APG) despite the disappointment about the Cavs season overall. But scratch under the surface a tad and see that his numbers have dropped all around. His scoring, FG%, 3pt%, FT% and rebounds per game are all down from his injury shortened breakout season last year (his assist per game is actually up by 0.1 assist per game). The shooting percentages are all career lows, and this is in a season where Cleveland added more talent around Kyrie and had playoff expectations, even making another huge addition mid-season by adding Luol Deng.
All of Irving’s issues aren’t just on the court either, with many reports saying the Cavs locker room is a “mess” and often point to Kyrie as the primary source of the dissent. Things are bubbling over, with Deng even throwing veiled shots at Kyrie (and Dion Waiters) publicly last week:
“When you play as a unit, you cover for a lot of things. When one guy is unhappy with somebody, when you’re out there together as five, no one would talk about this stuff. But right now, since we’re not a unit, you always go for the head of the snake. It’s unfortunate that guys will start talking about the coach and everything. But I’m new here, so they might feel a different way.”
Kyrie is in line to be offered a max contract extension this summer, its a wonder at this point if he deserves it. Once a potential destination for LeBron this summer, the Cavs may be headed for a major roster shakeup before the February 20th trade deadline, not even a full season through their current major roster shakeup, and no one is to blame more than their “star.”