BOSTON — Blake Griffin arrived at Celtics practice on Monday, approached interim head coach Joe Mazzulla and reminded him of when his Oklahoma Sooners defeated Mazzzulla’s West Virginia team in a double-overtime thriller in 2007. Griffin scored 18 points with 16 rebounds. Mazzulla contributed five points.
“(Mazzulla’s) very, very ready,” Griffin noticed almost 15 years later. “I’ve never really had a chance to spend a lot of time around him, but his approach to the game and the way he speaks to the guys, you can tell he’s been a coach or an assistant or whatever for a while. You talk to certain guys and you’re like, ‘that’s a coach.’ That’s kind of what he is.”
Mazzulla and Griffin may be opposites, a first-time coach with much to prove and a veteran icon with little left to accomplish beyond a championship. That one goal makes them a fitting pair though, especially as Mazzulla leans on players to help lead this team. Like Malcolm Brogdon, Griffin arrived in Boston before Sunday’s game and met with Jaylen Brown and others intending to sacrifice and complement this team’s core. Griffin isn’t here to save the front court and a group of players including Grant Williams, Luke Kornet and Mfiondu Kabengele have already made strong impressions in training camp.
The lasting image of Brown unloading on Griffin in isolation doesn’t tell the full story on Griffin, as dysfunction defined Brooklyn’s season and Steve Nash had effectively removed him from the rotation when he entered the late stages of that first-round series in desperation. After a strong arrival in 2021 with the Nets, where he dunked, hit 38.3% of his threes and effectively defended fives, his shooting capsized last year and Brooklyn’s switching scheme forced him into difficult matchups on the perimeter. Griffin challenged the Nets’ urgency after a Game 3 appearance where he sparked a comeback attempt with stops and a pair of threes.
“I’m actually, not surprised, but the amount of maturity and welcomingness, I don’t know if that’s a word,” Griffin told CLNS Media. “It’s a different atmosphere than I’m sort of used to, in a good way where they’re very welcoming. Everybody, one through 15 or however many guys are here in practice today, were focused, very encouraging, helpful and I think you kind of take that for granted, because it’s not always the case everywhere you go.”
Whatever Griffin’s statement said about last year’s Nets, it rings optimistically about a buddying leadership core in Boston he can help influence. If Griffin can earn a backup five role and acclimate to the Celtics’ defensive culture, he’s enough of a hustle player and playmaker to assist his younger star teammates. He averaged 3.9 assists per 36 minutes last year and 4.5 for his career, grabs an occasional steal, rebounds and drew 37 offensive fouls, the most in basketball. Marcus Smart and White joined him among last year’s leaders.
Versatility, size, youth and athleticism stand in his way. Al Horford, who’s been around for 40 years, Griffin quipped, and Grant both need to play often if the Celtics want to maintain their switching scheme. Kabengele wowed the Garden in Sunday’s win with his lob-catching ability and offensive rebounding, following up with Brown in pick-and-roll drills during Monday’s practice.
Kornet stands at 7-2 and can protect the rim in drop coverage if he successfully recovers from a training camp ankle sprain. Griffin acknowledged Robert Williams III, out with knee surgery, is the anchor of the team once he returns and at that point, minutes may disappear entirely for the veteran. He’s focused on the ring more than opportunity.
“(I’ll bring) stability off the bench. They obviously have centers in Rob and Al that have played big minutes,” Griffin told CLNS Media. “Whatever they need, if Al needs a break, Rob needs a break, sort of just utility. I didn’t come here demanding a certain type of role, just to fill the gaps.”
“In this league,” he continued. “You have to have a good amount of self awareness. When your talent level and your level of humility and self awareness align, I think you can sort of maximize your time in the league and sometimes you can see that doesn’t happen and guy’s careers are cut short because of it. Just like in Brooklyn, I didn’t come in demanding this or that. You have to earn it … be a good teammate, be a leader and do what they ask and play your role.”