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Blake Griffin's debut is worth the wait

Rookie provides the excitement in opener, even if he can't provide a Clippers victory.

October 27, 2010|Bill Plaschke

You've got to be Blakin' kidding me.

The first professional basket for this city's most intriguing basketball player was a dunk, alley-oop, raise the roof, ooohs and aaahs and oh my gosh.

Moments later, Blake Griffin had an even better one.

The third professional basket for this city's most intriguing basketball player was a flying jam off a rebound, left-handed, wild-minded, fans literally falling over each other in dramatic amazement.

Before Wednesday's Clippers debut of last year's injured No. 1 overall draft pick, Portland Coach Nate McMillan said, "He's a monster."

Check.

Before Griffin's pro career was 10 minutes old, he had nine points, five rebounds, and a filled Staples Center growing hoarse. By the time his debut ended, he had 20 points and 14 rebounds in the Clippers' 98-88 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

"There were some things that I was pleased with, but I've got a lot, a lot, to improve on," a weary Griffin said afterward, sitting in the locker room with both knees packed with ice.

Earlier, white plastic mouthpiece dangling, eyes steady, cheering his teammates like a rookie, apologizing to his coach like a college kid, the Oklahoman turned the packed Hollywood house into a Dust Bowl revival meeting.

Put it another way: I've never heard more people cheer the start of a Clippers' season louder or quicker.

"I could really feel the crowd behind us," Griffin said. "Now we have to keep them behind us."

On one possession, Griffin grabbed three offensive rebounds. On another possession, he gathered an inbounds pass and leaped around two Trail Blazers for a layup.

Playing defense in the third quarter, he stole a dribble and led a fastbreak that pulled the Clippers to within two points. Playing hard throughout, he seemed to revive Baron Davis, inspire Eric Gordon, and generally push the Clippers to a place beyond last year's 29-win mess.

They came back from a nine-point deficit to take the lead with seven minutes remaining before they suffered the usual late meltdown. But as a sign of the hope that Griffin has given the fans, they actually booed the Clippers for melting down.

In a variety of ways Wednesday, Griffin made you believe.

During a brief welcome speech before the game, he flashed a huge grin for the fans. After a brief lockup in the third quarter, he angrily stared down Andre Miller.

Griffin was more than strong, more than skilled, he was also entertaining, and when is the last time the Clippers have had someone who could even make you smile? He was so much fun that even his teammates became giddy, as evidenced by a second attempted alley-oop pass thrown to him by Davis — from the other foul line.

When he left the floor in the final moments of the first half, several fans even gave him a standing ovation and, yeah, we've all sort of been waiting for this.

Last fall, the 6-foot-10, 252-pound kid showed signs of greatness until suffering a torn kneecap in his final preseason game, an injury that forced him to miss the season.

Since then, all we had known about him were stories of his relentless rehabilitation and teamwork — did you know he even gave little pep talks to teammates on the bench? This fall he returned to lead the Clippers in preseason scoring and rebounding, and some folks were already calling him potentially one of the top power forwards in the NBA, but still … did anybody really know?

One game down, and yeah, now we have a pretty good idea.

The only thing clearly worrisome about the 21-year-old's game is how much of it he throws around the floor.

With seemingly every possession Wednesday, Griffin lunged and leaped and tugged and if there were times when the crowd was quiet, it was because it was holding its collective breath.

Not only does Griffin constantly epitomize the Clippers' promise, but he also embodies the constant fear of the Clippers Curse.

While he is the sort of player who could one day draw chants of "MVP," right now those fans would more likely be shouting, "Don't get hurt!"

Admit it, Clippers fan. Every time he ran down the court after a particularly violent scrum, you watched him for any sign of twinge or cringe.

Late in the game after he hit the deck while being fouled, an entire section of fans stood up with a giant "Ohhhhh." Only when Griffin found his feet did they sit down.

"He's a great athlete who plays basketball," said new Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro. "It's our job to turn him into a great basketball player."

Del Negro recognizes both the faith and fear causing by a flailing, flying guy like this.

"I was kidding him after practice," Del Negro recalled of a summer workout." We had a scrimmage game and he must have been on the floor like 12 times. I said, 'Hey, that's great. But you don't have to jump … over a scorer's table, and a clock and everything else.'"

Among other gyrations Wednesday, Griffin ran into a baseline table, slid across the floor on his back, and once required three teammates to raise him to his feet.

But, in an act more difficult than anything, he actually leaped to the level of his great expectations. It wasn't good enough for a Clippers win, but it was close enough to ooooh.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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