Blake Griffin is occupying a role on the Celtics not often seen in the NBA, but one baseball fans will be quite familiar with. That is the role of the spot starter. Baseball teams will often keep a pitcher in the bullpen that is capable of occasionally starting games in the off chance one of their normal five starters picks up a short-term injury or gets suspended for something like tossing an old man to the ground during a bench clearing brawl, for instance.
The Celtics entered the season with one center that’s geriatric in NBA terms and another that was recovering from surgery. To put it another way, backup big was, and is, very important for the Cs, and Stevens took a backup by committee approach.
Despite the presence of a ragtag group of bigs that would fit in with Ponyboy and his crew, Blake emerged as the man Joe Mazzulla turns to when he needs someone to start and eat big minutes. He is late career Tim Wakefield, ready to toss a couple of knuckleballs and hope nobody hits it too hard.
Blake has only played in 37 of the Celtics’ 78 games, and a dozen or so garbage time cameos. Generally when he plays, he plays a sizeable role. He’s played 14 minutes or more in 19 games and 20 minutes or more in 10. He’s started 15 of those games and filled in admirably when tapped for a starting spot.
He’s averaging 8.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists in starts, and he’s shooting a shockingly efficient 52.8% from the floor and 39.1% from 3 in those games. A far cry from his former All-NBA form, but not too shabby for a guy that was largely signed for bench vibes, which he’s delivered in droves.
JB really gave Blake his mask after the Thanasis head-butt pic.twitter.com/AyymVWFpDI— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 31, 2023
Despite the inconsistent role, you haven’t heard a negative word from Griffin or any of his teammates. The contrary really. Boston love Blake. It takes a special personality to accept that your athleticism has fundamentally altered who you are as a player and become a different type of contributor. The NBA annals are littered with the names of superstars who failed to make this transition. Blake’s done it seamlessly. Blake’s role isn’t a particularly complicated one. Here are the most important aspects of it: rebound, play a little defense, and don’t screw up on offense.
On the rebounding front, Blake’s lack of athleticism is apparent, but the dude absolutely battles on both ends. His 8.9 OREB% is his highest since he was a high flying 22-year-old second year player in 2011-12. He’s tenacious on the offensive glass and gets a hand to just about every 50/50 board, even if he doesn’t always corral it.
While his offensive rebounds are more memorable, he’s actually been even more impactful on the defensive glass. The Celtics DREB% increases from 74.1% to 78.7% when Blake steps foot on the court. He’s averaging his highest DREB% individually since 2016-17, which matched this year’s 20.2%.
Blake isn't good defensively, but he's not been a five-alarm fire every time he's out there either. Plus, the dude fights his ass off on the glass. In soccer terms, he plays for the badge. pic.twitter.com/Rrz89896gC— Wayne Spooney (@WSpooney) April 3, 2023
A big part of defense is making sure you finish possessions, and Blake has a huge impact on that for the Cs. He’s compounded that effectiveness by being fine on the defensive end. Totally ok. Actually, not too bad. Average, maybe a little below, maybe a little above. So-so. The numbers are a bit more flattering than the eye test. He’s surprisingly got the 4th best defensive rating on the team behind Robert Williams (makes sense), Payton Pritchard (that’s kinda strange), and Sam Hauser (basketball is weird).
Blake is just a really smart positional defender that keeps the play in front of him. He locates ball and man really well and seems to have picked up the Celtics system pretty quickly. He’s often in drop coverage in pick and rolls because Joe, rightly, doesn’t trust him on switches, and he’s pretty effective in that scheme. There’s nothing groundbreaking on this play, for instance, but he helps just enough to let Derrick White get back to Talen Horton-Tucker, and then locates his man and secures the board. Smart, solid defense.
Blake is what I would call a non-traditional defensive center. He’s certainly not a high-flying rim protector like Rob Williams, or a verticality king like Al Horford, but he does protect the rim in his own special way. Blake is the charge master. He’s like a matador that uses his chest instead of a muleta (which, after a quick Google search, I’ve learned is what they call those red blanket things). He leads the team in total charges taken at 15, two ahead of Derrick White whose played about 1700 more minutes than him. He averages one charge taken per 36 minutes, dwarfing White and Marcus Smart, who are tied for second at .20 per 36. Because Blake keeps everything in front of him, and he’s got excellent anticipation about how an individual possession will unfold. Thus, he’s constantly in position to take charges. He’s so effective that it’s to the point teams have to be wary of whether Blake will slip in and take one on every drive. All this adds up to a unique, but fairly effective deep bench big.
Offensively, Blake’s elite skillset for his size still shines through. He’s not able to cook players off the dribble and rise up over shot blockers anymore, but he’s steady and smart on offense. His best attribute is how quickly he makes decision, and how often those decisions are the correct one. He keeps the Celtics offense humming and doesn’t get in the way.
Blake possesses the Derrick White-ian attribute of continuing to move, unless he’s better off staying put and spacing. He’s constantly setting screen after screen or cutting, and when he gets the ball, he gets off of it. Take a look at this play.
He works the pitch-back with Tatum, then immediately moves off ball to set a screen for White. He smartly spaces the floor, but when the ball is swung to Mike Muscala, he crashes the offensive glass. I’ve watched this play a handful of times and I’m still not sure how he manages to get this board, but he does. Instead of forcing something up at the rim, where he’s been less than effective finishing, Blake resets the offense. He quickly sees Grant Williams floating into the restricted area and hits him with the feed for two.
He’s continued to flash a little sparkle of playmaking here and there throughout the year, and it’s a luxury to have a deep bench center capable of making plays off the dribble. He’s able to punish double teams just by driving hard and hitting an open shooter.
Blake starts the possession nice and high so Tatum has an easier angle to pass out of the double. When he hits the lane, he doesn’t make that panic initial pass to Smart in the corner. Instead, he takes an extra beat, really draws the defense, then kicks it to the open shooter. That’s a combination of high-level ball skills and feel for the game left over from his former days as a star. Combine this with him occasionally knocking in some open spot up threes, and you’ve got a perfectly acceptable center to play around the Jays.
Blake’s not asked to do too much, but he’s embraced it just the same. He’s traded in the clean-shaven limelight of Lob City for a hardhat, a safety vest, and the mustache of a South Boston stevedore. Blake wakes up, picks a bit of last night’s dinner out of his stache, heads to work, and does exactly what the Celtics need him to every single day.