BOSTON — Noah Vonleh started the Celtics’ third game of the season in Orlando, the first back-to-back Al Horford sat out of in what’s become routine maintenance for the veteran. Vonleh fouled four times in 14 minutes, so Joe Mazzulla searched for more answers from his big man depth, electing to play Luke Kornet in his first ill-fated minutes after a preseason ankle injury and later shifted to Griffin for some second-unit minutes in the third quarter.
With under one minute left, Griffin darted to the corner in front of the Celtics’ bench to steal a possession back from Paolo Banchero, who he beat to the ball. It earned Jaylen Brown an extra shot at a layup in a three-point game that Boston went on to win, 126-120.
Mazzulla called the loose ball recovery the play of the game. "Great leadership,” Mazzulla said.
Over one month later, Griffin had only played roughly 60 minutes in five games since, not exactly what he expected coming to Boston to compete for a role. Horford ramped up his workload on some nights and Kornet made the most of his opportunities in others, but since that Orlando game, Mazzulla made it a habit of starting Griffin when Horford sits.
On Monday night, it resulted in a throwback moment where the big man threw down a one-handed alley oop slam. Griffin flushed two dunks and scored nine points with four rebounds in the Celtics’ 140-105 win over the Hornets on Monday.
The slams finally reminded everyone of who that man wearing No. 91 was. A phenomenon and MVP candidate 10 years ago now wears No. 91 and spends more time talking than playing. He’s embraced that though, laughing off how he used to hear people say all he can do is dunk who now wonder when he’ll throw down again.
Griffin needed to change his game following two knee procedures in Detroit, acquiring a three-point shot and focusing on passing. His tracking ability on rebounds flashed on two tip-outs early against Charlotte.
“I don’t mean to correlate those two,” Mazzulla said. “(Griffin) gets an opportunity because (he’s) good at basketball and (he) can help us win ... he gives us exactly what is expected. We have a lot of depth and the NBA season is very long, so he can give us a lot. He’s really physical, he screens well, his ability to crash the offensive glass and his defensive communication is really good for the system that we have. I think it’s just a matter of him and I constantly communicating, him staying ready through his work ethic and, like I said, there’s going to be moments where we’re going to need him.”
Teammates like Payton Pritchard and Luke Kornet needed Griffin’s perspective on playing time, himself going through inconsistent playing time in Brooklyn last year. Things can change fast, he told Pritchard specifically after he lost his role early this season in Boston’s back court.
He stayed in Pritchard’s ear as they shared extra time on the bench, constantly drawing laughter from the young guard. Then, Malcolm Brogdon and Marcus Smart got hurt this month and Pritchard averaged 16 minutes across five wins where he shot 52.9%.
“(Pritchard) and Luke got thrown into the game in the third quarter against Sacramento, and they changed the game,” Griffin told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog. “Those things matter, those things matter to coaching staffs and fans see that. People appreciate that and this fan base appreciates guys that play hard. So really, before every game, I talk to everybody and always tell them something. My message to Payton is stay locked in and do what you do.”
Griffin met Pritchard when he was 16 and committed to Oklahoma. He left Pritchard passes for a Sooners game shortly before Pritchard de-committed and eventually attended Oregon. Griffin quickly joked and questioned his own recruiting techniques.
Brogdon and Griffin agree, though, that while they’ve taken steps back from their past front line roles to win late in their careers, they notice something different in the Celtics’ locker room, something different from their past experiences. And something they don’t want their teammates who haven’t been anywhere else to take for granted.
“It’s honestly a very common conversation I have with guys,” Brogdon said. “Just about appreciating where they are. Marcus, Jayson, Jaylen, Grant, these guys haven’t seen other teams, so they don’t know how other organizations, other teams, how everything works in other places. So there’s a lot of good here, from the top down, the leadership down to the PTs and the players.”
“I remind the guys of that when times get tough, because there’s always going to be times during the season where there are lulls, guys can get a little unhappy, it’s just the nature of the business. But for me and Blake, we’ve been in situations where the team is not winning, and the team is really struggling, and there’s chaos.”