Time for Griffin to lead the Clippers

PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- If the can't-get-past-the-second-round label affixed to Chris Paul is not unfair but "the truth," as Paul himself acknowledged, then it's equally truthful to say it's up to Blake Griffin to take the Los Angeles Clippers deeper into the playoffs.

While Paul once again lived up to the biggest knock against him, Griffin just shed some of the nagging critiques of his game.

The all-he-does-is-dunk tag is long gone for Griffin, and you can't just foul him and consider it a defensive stop anymore. He expanded his shooting comfort zone last season, making an additional 59 midrange jump shots from the previous season, according to data on vorped.com. He shot a career-high 72 percent from the free throw line. He has gone from a guy who can get 20 points easily to a guy who can get 30 regularly. He scored 30-plus points 16 times last season, after hitting that mark only three times in 2012-13.

Now it's time for the ultimate test: Can he be the star in a playoff game?

That's where Chris Paul still holds the edge, that disastrous finish to Game 5 in Oklahoma City notwithstanding. Paul was the story of the Clippers' Game 1 victory in that series with his eight 3-pointers, and the story of their Game 4 victory with his efforts on the defensive end. Griffin has yet to put his watermark on a second-round playoff victory.

Griffin shot only 46 percent in the Oklahoma City series, after shooting 53 percent in both the regular season and the first round of the playoffs. He had only one postseason game with double-digit rebounds. With their season at stake in Game 6 of the second round, he committed three fouls in the fourth quarter, leaving after picking up his sixth with 2:27 remaining.

So, yes, there's work to be done. But when we're poring over the numbers, we shouldn't overlook the date of his birth: 3/16/89.

"Blake's had so much, so fast that people think he's 30," Clippers forward Matt Barnes said. "He's, what, 25?"

Yes, he's the same age Kevin Durant was when he won the most valuable player award last season. It's the same age Allen Iverson was when he won the MVP in 2001. Griffin's old enough to have this league figured out, but not so old his highlight plays are all in the past. He's at an age when potential begins to transfer to results.

The Clippers still need Paul to be an elite point guard, DeAndre Jordan to anchor the defense, J.J. Redick to hit outside shots, Jamal Crawford to provide bench scoring, Spencer Hawes to give them frontcourt depth. If you think about it, it's actually easier to expect All-Star performances from Griffin than for all of those variables to play out. Griffin will be the focal point. He can either overcome bad play from his teammates or undermine them with bad play of his own.

"He realizes that we go as far as he takes us," Barnes said.

It's why Griffin sat out Team USA's world championship run in Spain this summer to protect his hurt back and focus on the upcoming season. And maybe it's why Griffin's demeanor seemed a little more mature at Clippers media day on Monday. He took on more questions that he might have been content to leave for Paul to answers in seasons past. The dry sense of humor wasn't on display.

"It's just a mindset that we want to have as a franchise," Griffin said. "Everything we do, practices, games, even off the court, we want to have the right mindset, a professional mindset."

Paul mentioned this will be his fourth season together with Griffin and Jordan. That's an eternity for a trio in the modern NBA. The only equivalent heading into the season is the three years that Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and David Lee have logged together with the Warriors. The only thing better -- way, way better -- is the dozen years of service for Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in San Antonio.

But for every click of the Clippers' pieces fitting together in Year 2 under Doc Rivers, there's a tick of time elapsing. Jordan is in the last year of his contract. The second wave of players -- Barnes, Jamal Crawford and Redick -- are all in their 30s. Urgency would serve the Clippers well.

It might not be realistic to expect them to make the championship leap this season. The gap between six and 16 playoff victories is too vast. Advancing to the conference finals feels tangible. Asking Griffin to lead them there seems reasonable.

"It's not whether it's fair or not," Griffin said. "It is what it is. That's the reality."

He was talking about the perception of Paul. He might as well have used those words on himself. Because this season, everything's on Griffin.