The Los Angeles Clippers had an off night against a revived Portland backcourt, but Blake Griffin's performance is of more concern than his teammates' after their first loss since his return (7-1).
Source: (Hashtag Basketball - Brian Han)
(LOS ANGELES, Calif.) -- The Blake train had to make a stop eventually.
And it did on Saturday after a promising 7-0 run that included two postseason wins against the youthful Portland Trailblazers.
As it turns out, the train has been slowing down -- a trend overshadowed by solid team play.
Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin played well in Game 1. So much so that those who didn't have context regarding his injury-riddled season would have thought he performed like a perfectly healthy athlete.
He drove to the rim for most of his shots (8-of-10), slammed the ball down, beat his chest, and all was well in sunny Southern California.
Even to fans who long awaited his return couldn't have been faulted for believing that the "unstoppable force" (as guard Chris Paul described Griffin after the series opener) had made his comeback.
His field-goal percentage dropped to 33 percent in Game 2, but no matter because the Clippers took home an unquestionable victory over the Portland squad.
Then Game 3 rolled around.
Any postseason loss is tough to swallow, but this one was especially frustrating.
The Portland Trailblazers solidified a 96-88 win in which both teams had plenty of chances to take over the game.
Griffin took his highest volume of shots in the postseason, but went 5-of-16 from the floor Saturday night -- a performance that revealed a slightly concerning trend.
He relied much more heavily on his mid-range jumper and less than a third of his attempts came from within the paint according to NBA.com's shot chart.
The question is why would he alter his approach if he had found so much success driving and bullying the Portland Trailblazers' defenders?
When you review some of his highlights from earlier in the series, you see that he's not quite as explosive while attacking the rim or not reaching quite the same heights when dunking.
The highlight above is from Game 1 of the current series.
Everything looks good, right?
Now compare that to Griffin's most towering dunks when he's 100 percent healthy.
His head is literally level with the rim and there's no awkward landing to brace the impact.
Even if you don't like this team, plays like this will leave you with your jaw hanging slightly lower than usual.
Just like the Clippers continually allow Portland forwards like Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu shoot a fair amount of uncontested threes so that they can focus their defensive efforts on Lillard and McCollum, the Trailblazers let Griffin take long-twos all night.
Normally, this would be a huge mistake for any defense, but Portland's gamble paid off because Griffin missed -- and he missed badly.
The popular narrative has revolved around Griffin's need to shake off the rust and play himself into shape. For awhile, his gradual improvements supported that theory, but now he's moving in the wrong direction.
Without being at closed-door team meetings, it's impossible to tell whether he's doing this to fight off pain from a partially torn left quadricep tendon or the coaching staff underestimated the opponent and urged him to sharpen up his jump shot with more attempts.
But when it came to crunch time in the fourth quarter, Griffin played the second-most minutes of any starter and only shot twice -- one of which was an thoughtless three-point attempt from the baseline. On top of that, he only grabbed one defensive rebound and was the only starter to turn the ball over.
The onus shouldn't be placed all on Griffin though.
Guard J.J. Redick had a horrendous shooting night going 2-for-10 from the floor. Center DeAndre Jordan missed four consecutive free throws when the team needed it most. The Clippers bench went cold and acted more like a weight than a weapon.
The only bright spot was the ever-consistent performance by guard Chris Paul who put up 26 points, nine assists and three steals on the night.
But all these players just had an off night, whereas Griffin's game and approach are visibly changing game to game.
Lastly, these things are all happening against a Portland team whose offense finally came alive. The timing couldn't be worse.
Guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum (who just won the NBA's Most Improved Player Award) combined for 59 points.
"I wanted to come out and leave it all out there, be aggressive at the offensive end and help on the defensive end," Lillard told reporters after the game.
It showed and Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers didn't hesitate to corroborate that.
"They played harder so they deserved to win the game," he said after the game. "I really thought they deserved to win the game."