LOS ANGELES -- We'll allow Blake Griffin to go with an old cliché to describe his return because of the honesty in the added detail.
"Just like riding a bike," Griffin said, "Except for it was a little rusty."
If Griffin was physically incapable of returning at full speed, the most impressive accomplishment in his first game since Christmas was he didn't get in the way. Well, there was the one time he bumped into Jamal Crawford while trying to set a screen for him, but other than that it was a smooth reintegration of a key Los Angeles Clipper with only six games left in their regular season.
Bringing back such an important player is not the easiest task in the delicate NBA ecosystem of rhythms and egos. Griffin had a usage rate of 30.2 before he went down; only 10 players end possessions with the ball in their hands at a higher rate this season. The formula that developed in his absence for the past three months has basically been: 20 points and 10 assists from Chris Paul, a double-double from DeAndre Jordan, buckets by J.J. Redick and Crawford scoring off the bench.
In many ways the box score from the Clippers' 114-109 victory over the Washington Wizards on Sunday looked similar to one from January or February. Paul finished with 27 points and 12 assists. Jordan had 12 points and 12 rebounds. Redick made 7 of 13 shots and scored 18 points. Crawford had 19 points and six assists.
Griffin, limited to 24 minutes as he regains the conditioning he lost while out with a torn quadriceps muscle, had six points, five rebounds and four assists. The number that jumped out was in the plus/minus column: he was plus-22.
"It's just about playing within the offense," Griffin said. "Guys find that rhythm because we play within the offense. So, if I come back and play within the offense, that's not something I hopefully have to worry about. These guys are great basketball players. I think I'd have to do a lot to mess up their rhythm."
The gaudy plus-minus, by far the best of any player in the game, was indicative of Griffin being "in the right place at the right time," Jordan said. Griffin allowed Jordan to make defensive switches off Wizards big men and not be replaced by a much smaller player, as had been the case with many of the lineups the Clippers used in Griffin's absence. "He was able to clog up the paint and be there to help guys," Jordan said.
"It was just nice to be back out there," Griffin said. "That's the main takeaway. My rhythm was pretty bad. My conditioning was a little bit better than I thought it would be."
His first jumper was off and he mimicked his shot on the way back downcourt, like a golfer trying to get the kinks out of his swing after an errant drive. He had a chance to throw a lob to Jordan and realized it too late, letting out a little yell of frustration when the lost opportunity dawned on him. Even when he scored his basket in a familiar fashion, an unusual thought entered his mind as he prepared to take off to slam home a lob pass from Paul.
"It was the first time ever thinking: 'Please don't throw it too high,'" Griffin said.
Griffin scored his other field goal off a nice spin move in the second half. He wasn't quite ready to carry the offense -- a lineup featuring him and four reserves scored four points in a three-minute stretch in the fourth quarter -- but when paired with Paul in the lineup he provided an additional threat that made the Clippers' offense more potent.
"With Blake there's endless possibilities," Paul said.
If they want to entertain the possibility of finally getting to the conference finals they'll need Griffin at full speed. If Griffin sits out the second games in the Clippers' two remaining back-to-back sets, as expected, he will have only four more games to get ready for the playoffs. If there's not much left before the finish, they at least got off to a good start.