The Clippers' two-man game


With so much controversy and uncertainty about ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers, at least they're not locked in a fight for whose team it is.

There's a huge difference, you know. Macro vs. micro, legal definitions vs. locker-room practicality. One of the reasons the Clippers got through the upheaval of Donald Sterling is that Blake Griffin and Chris Paul don't engage in territorial skirmishes.

Los Angeles knows how destructive power struggles can be. Even though the Lakers had Jerry Buss, the best owner in sports, they left championships on the table because Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant couldn't preserve their tenuous coexistence. The Clippers have emerged as the more successful team in L.A. of late because of the opposite dynamic: the two key players working together to win in spite of the owner.

"There's definitely no battle," said Clippers veteran guard Willie Green. "I think it just comes from maturity on both of their parts. Chris understands that he needs Blake, Blake needs Chris, and we as a team, we need both of them."

Look at the best teams in recent history and you'll find cooperation among the players with the biggest names. The Spurs have remained in the championship discussion since 1999, when David Robinson shared with Tim Duncan, who later stepped back for Tony Parker. Dwyane Wade let LeBron James take over the Miami Heat to win the past two championships. Doc Rivers had the right mix in Boston in 2007-08, when he successfully integrated Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen into Paul Pierce's team, as all three players saw their individual stats go down for the sake of a championship banner going up in the rafters.

"I don't think there's clashes when you're trying to win," said Rivers, now in his first year coaching the Clippers. "I think there's clashes when you're trying to be the leader of the team. I think all the clashes go away when everybody's on board about winning. I think the clashes start when the individual stuff's more important than the team stuff. You need individual egos to be great, but it can never be more important than the team."

Rivers' words remind me of a line from "Moby-Dick," Herman Melville's tale of monomaniacal obsession. There's a scene when Captain Ahab makes his first extended appearance of the book, locking his peg leg into a hole on the deck of the Pequod and addressing his crew. He holds a shiny golden doubloon and promises it to whoever delivers him the white whale with the crooked jaw that cost him his leg. Most of the crew is fired up, ready to chase Moby Dick to the far reaches of the ocean to get the reward. Not Starbuck, the ship's first mate (and yes, the inspiration for the coffee company's name).

"I am game for his crooked jaw, and for the jaws of Death too, Captain Ahab, if it fairly comes in the way of the business we follow," Starbuck says. "But I came here to hunt whales, not my commander's vengeance."

That's the secret of the NBA playoffs, hunting whales instead of individual agendas.

"I know that he can't do it alone and I can't do it alone," Paul said. "And then ... I just want to win. Winning conquers all."

It helped that Griffin was here first, but not for too long, before Paul arrived in a trade from New Orleans right before the lockout-shortened season began in December 2011.

"I'd only had one year of playing," Griffin said. "It wasn't that I was having to change years and years of what I was doing."

In Griffin's rookie season, he became a social media sensation with his high-flying dunks, highlighted by a busy All-Star Weekend that included the car-jumping dunk that launched 1,000 Kia commercials. But the Clippers finished with a 32-50 record. The knock on Griffin was he could do the things to make the nightly highlights, but not the things it took to win games.

Paul's arrival made the Clippers a growth stock. He took the big shots in the fourth quarter and helped them to their first winning record in five years and only the second winning season for the franchise since 1992.

Griffin still maintained the honor of being the last one introduced at home games, the one you saw painted on the sides of buildings near Staples Center. And while commercial cameras kept going for Griffin, Paul picked up some national campaigns and they even joined forces in a spot that made light of Griffin's ubiquitous endorsements. Both were voted onto the Western Conference All-Star team's starting lineup in 2012 and 2013.

There was enough room for both to get their accolades. And eventually they found a way to share the court.

In New Orleans, Paul played more deliberately. He directed everyone and didn't initiate the play until each player was in his proper spot. The Hornets played at the second-slowest pace in the NBA his last season with them.

"I'd never played with a point guard like that before, first of all," Griffin said. "You have to adjust and learn to play like that and kind of cater your game to that. Obviously, he's been successful with what he's done. It was kind of up to us to build around that."

And it was up to Paul to adapt to his new team. The Clippers play better when they're faster, and they have steadily increased their pace to make them top 10 in that category and the leading scoring-team in the NBA this season. Paul had to learn his teammates' tendencies too. For instance, he threw lobs right at the rim to Tyson Chandler in New Orleans. Griffin likes the ball farther away so he can take it to the hoop himself.

Paul also keeps his mouthpiece in longer instead of barking out a constant stream of instructions.

"He's a little bit more calmer," said Darren Collison, who played with Paul in New Orleans and now Los Angeles. "But he's more determined. He doesn't really talk as much. I think he's more focused. Either way, he wants this thing bad."

Griffin and Paul got to know each other better last summer, when they worked out together in Las Vegas and traveled to China on a promotional trip.

Another event in the offseason gave them a link: the birth of Griffin's son, Ford. Griffin had already been an unofficial uncle in the locker room he called "Clipper Day Care." Paul had turned it into a kid-friendly environment, with his son, "Lil' Chris," and Matt Barnes' twin boys running around after games and Green's son acting as their big brother. Griffin always got along with the kids, greeting them with Fresh Prince high fives. His staredown at the podium with Lil' Chris was one of the memorable images of the 2012 playoffs.

But Ford's birth meant a deeper connection. Now Griffin could share the experience of fatherhood with Paul.

"But the biggest thing it did for me was make me realize what's really important to me," Griffin said. "I know a lot of people say this, but when I go home and see him after games, I'm just happy to just sit there and hold him -- somebody that can't even talk to me or know what's going on. It changes my whole perspective. It definitely has changed my perspective on a lot of things, and basketball is one of them."

In the meantime, our perspective on Griffin's basketball has changed. Paul's midseason absence with a shoulder injury allowed Griffin to show off every aspect of his game -- the ballhandling, the midrange jumper, the improved free throw shooting -- and demonstrate that he could win games on his own.

The reason the team transitioned smoothly when Paul returned was the point guard's willingness to let Griffin continue in that role. That dated back to a conversation Rivers had with Paul at the beginning of the season, reminding Paul that doing things his way never got him a trip to the conference finals. Rivers needed a little bit less from Paul, which would mean more to the team.

"He still has the ball in his hand a lot," Rivers said. "We want him to have the ball; he's the best player in the league with it. But we also feel like it's harder to guard him when he gives it up and comes back, and then they can't load up."

Paul and Griffin both had the ball in the fourth quarter of a tight Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors. Griffin had eight points in the quarter, while Paul had seven points and three assists. The answer to the question was: both.

"What was Bill Russell always saying? You can be great and your teammate can be great too," Rivers said. "That means you're a great player, but if you can only be great and your teammate can't be great, that means you're not a great player. I can agree with that."