The evolution of Blake Griffin

DENVER -- Blake Griffin turned 25 on Sunday.

This might come as a surprise to those who have talked about Griffin’s unfulfilled potential and shrinking ceiling for the past couple years. You know, when he was all of 24 and 23 years old.

After his spectacular rookie year three seasons ago, it was easy to expect Griffin to suddenly become one of the best players in the league around the same time he was legally able to drink.

Everything seemed to come easy to him.

The dunks looked like second nature. The comedic timing on his countless commercials was so natural. It was normal to expect a midrange jumper and free throws to come just as seamlessly.

We wanted so much so soon from him. And why not? He had made the All-Star team, dunked over a car, won the slam dunk contest and rookie of the year honors and averaged 22.5 points and 12.5 rebounds in his first season. A sophomore slump, from a statistical standpoint, was bound to happen.

It’s not that Griffin’s game regressed. It just that it didn’t progress as rapidly as some expected.

The box scores and stat lines were never really going to do Griffin justice. The numbers he put up his first season were on a 32-50 team where he was the only real option. The stats and dunks were great, but what were they for? Over the next two seasons, the Clippers won 65 percent of their games and made back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in two decades with the addition of players like Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford and the maturation of DeAndre Jordan. Griffin was putting up All-Star numbers, but they took a slight dip across the board over the two seasons following his rookie year.

Griffin’s goal coming into this season was to change that, and he has responded with a career season that has him being talked about as an MVP candidate. He is currently averaging a career-high 24.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists and is shooting 69.9 percent from the free throw line. He earned his first player of the month award last month after being one of only two players to average at least 30 points and 10 rebounds in February.

“I wanted to improve across the board to be honest,” Griffin said. “I concentrated on my shot and really put a lot of work in there. Every year I try to make improvements, not just in one area but do it across the board, and one thing is leadership. Every year I want to take another step because with every year, you obviously get more experience and younger guys are coming in and you look to take on that role.”

There’s no real way to practice being a leader. You just have to do it, and Griffin was essentially forced into that role when Paul was sidelined for 20 games this season and Griffin led the team to a 14-6 record and in the process catapulted himself into the MVP race by showing that he was capable of being the team’s leader and go-to guy. Not only did that time allow Griffin to mature but it also changed the way Paul and Clippers coach Doc Rivers viewed Griffin and the direction of the team.

“I think clearly he’s running the floor better and he’s handling the ball more,” Rivers said. “I just think the overall confidence in his game has grown and his shot and his ability to face the basket instead of always trying to play physical with the bigs. I think that’s where he’s improved the most and he’s still going to keep getting better. I don’t think he’s where he wants to be yet at all.”

Paul knew Griffin was athletic and gifted around the basket but he realized Griffin was also becoming a gifted playmaker with the ball in the open court. His ability to run the offense and find the open man on fast breaks was a new dimension to the offense Paul and Rivers realized they had to use even when Paul returned to the lineup.

“When I was out Doc talked to me about kicking the ball ahead and it’s been fun,” Paul said. “Kicking the ball ahead to Blake and letting Blake push it and make plays. It’s not always about the assist. Doc said something about the hockey assist -- the pass that leads to the next pass and that’s when I think when our team is at its best.”

Paul said his relationship with Griffin grew during his time away from the court. He realized how much he needed him to succeed and vice versa. This wasn’t Paul’s team or Griffin’s team anymore. It had to be their team if they wanted to do anything worthwhile in the postseason.

“I think it takes some pressure off of Chris,” Rivers said. “You don’t want Chris having the ball on every possession all game. I don’t know how you can physically go through a game, a year and definitely through the playoffs like that. I just think it’s really important that there’s more than one facilitator on your team.”

Griffin isn’t surprised that his maturation into one of the best players in the league didn’t come as quickly as he would like. He remembers working with shooting coach Bob Thate two summers ago, but admits he only got about three weeks of work in after the Clippers’ playoff run took them into May and he was injured during Team USA training camp in Las Vegas soon after. Last summer he was able to completely devote himself to improving his game after the Clippers were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. It was perhaps the only silver lining to an embarrassing early exit that saw the Clippers lose four straight games to Memphis after taking a 2-0 series lead.

“It’s not going to happen overnight, that’s what I’ve been hearing since Day 1 even though I didn’t want to believe it,” Griffin said. “Last summer was the first full summer I was really able to work from the beginning of summer to the end of summer and really put the time in. It’s a lot more mental than I used to think it was. Really locking in every single shot and really focusing in on things that [Thate] wants me to focus on. Creating those habits is big. Even now when I come out to shoot pregame, he’s on me every single time I pick up the ball. I constantly hear him in my ear.”

Before the Clippers won their league-high 11th straight game Sunday and Griffin scored 21 points, his franchise-best 26th straight game of at least 20 points, he was given a birthday cake and serenaded by rookie forward Reggie Bullock, who was celebrating his birthday as well. Afterward, even Paul was surprised by how young Griffin is.

“It’s crazy. I asked him how old he was turning, and he said 25, and I felt that was so long ago,” said Paul, who is 28. “Blake is so mature -- we’ve been together now three years, sometimes I think we’re the same age. We always say the sky’s the limit for him, but it really is. He’s unbelievable. He’s so durable and so athletic and loves the game. He’s unreal.”

Rivers smiled when he was asked if there was a ceiling to Griffin’s game after watching his growth over the past six months this season.

“I don’t know if there is, and I don’t want to be the guy to tell him that there is,” Rivers said. “If you are always in pursuit of getting better, you’re going to find yourself at some point. He’s too young to be even thinking about that.”