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Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Blake Griffin’s struggles leaving big hole in center of lineup

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Everyone is familiar with the big void on the Nets. But there also might be a void of a big.

Kyrie Irving’s absence will always be felt, but opposing teams are exposing another hole, this one under the basket, through an otherwise fairly strong start to the Nets’ season.

There was little Brooklyn could do well against Golden State on Tuesday night, when one projected power dominated the other. And while the Nets will not win many games when Kevin Durant struggles, the disappearance of Blake Griffin while on the court and the disappearance of LaMarcus Aldridge, who mostly watched from the bench, was glaring.

In 23 minutes, Griffin scored four points on 0-for-4 shooting with two rebounds, an assist and a steal. His bucket-less night from 3 extended his drought to 0-for-18 in his previous five games, the outside game — which was supposed to be his way of reinventing himself as he aged — failing him.

Blake Griffin, who has been struggling, works on his shooting before the Nets' game against the Cavaliers.
Blake Griffin, who has been struggling, works on his shooting before the Nets’ game against the Cavaliers.
NBAE via Getty Images

In 26 games with the Nets last year, he shot at a 38.3 percent clip from beyond the arc, easily his best stretch in the NBA. That mark had fallen to 17.3 percent this year, and his field-goal accuracy was just 31.2 percent. The play of Durant has minimized it, and the struggles of James Harden have distracted from other aspects plaguing the Nets, but Griffin’s woes have been obvious.

“He’s just having a funk. I think he’s got good looks, but I think he just hasn’t been in a good rhythm,” coach Steve Nash said of Griffin’s shooting before the Nets met the Cavaliers at Barclays Center. “People go through stretches like that.”

Griffin’s defensive play is a bit less cut and dry, but it’s certainly not compensating for his offense. On Tuesday, the 32-year-old actually was only a minus-8, but his deficiencies stood out, especially when the Nets’ defense switched on screens so he had to chase Stephen Curry around until Curry sunk an easy layup.

Foot speed is not a strength, but neither is Griffin’s vertical jump anymore. So when his shots are not falling, there is wonder about how he is helping the team.

Nash signaled the Nets need to be better at protecting the rim, which is a unique aspect of Griffin’s game. He cannot contest anyone in the air, but he has found a niche challenging from the ground. Entering play, he had drawn a league-high 11 charges this season after leading the league (with 22) last year.

Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin
Corey Sipkin

The 36-year-old Aldridge, meanwhile, has been one of the better offensive players on the team but was benched against the small-ball Warriors. In nine minutes, he had two points and was a minus-14.

His midrange game has been strong, but he’s not strong defensively and was not trusted against the best team the Nets have faced.

Entering play Wednesday, the Nets were the ninth-best team in defensive rating. But in terms of points allowed in the paint, a team with title aspirations checked in at 17th (46.1 per game).

Perhaps Nic Claxton (out with a non-COVID illness since Oct. 25) can bring the shot-blocking and shot-altering that the Nets are lacking, but the 22-year-old will not be back soon and probably lacks a ceiling that a title contender craves. Or maybe a perfect piece for this team could be found on the opposing team Wednesday, a game Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen was expected to miss with a non-COVID illness.

The Nets went all-in on their Big 3, which meant much of their other useful complements were shipped away. When the Big 3 becomes a Big 2 issues like rim protection and a big who can’t find the rim are maximized.

“We’re trying to stick by [Griffin] in that respect and allow him a chance to play out of it,” Nash said.

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