SALT LAKE CITY – The lights went down inside Vivint Smart Home Arena, flames shot from behind the basket, and 19,911 pairs of eyes turned toward the home bench to cheer Utah’s starters.
From the tunnel at the opposite end of the arena, Blake Griffin emerged in a khaki jacket, an untucked white dress shirt and a walking boot on his right foot. He stood at the end of the Clippers’ bench as his teammates made their final preparations for Game 4 of their best-of-7 first-round series against the Jazz, which on this night included coming over to pay their respects to a sidelined superstar.
Luc Mbah a Moute gave him a one-armed hug. Jamal Crawford initiated a rehearsed handshake. Chris Paul was all business, quickly tapping Griffin’s elbow with a fist.
When the Clippers huddled at the free-throw line, Griffin limped out to join them, wrapping one arm around rookie Brice Jordan and the other over the shoulders of assistant coach Brendan O’Connor.
Then Griffin settled into the last seat on the Clippers’ bench, and began to adjust to life as their most famous fan.
The Clippers held a team meeting Saturday, the day after Griffin suffered the injury to his right big toe that will end his season. Behind closed doors, the team gathered to address the latest blow to the franchise and its fading championship hopes.
“Guys got a lot out to tell (Griffin),” Rivers said, “and he had some things to say so I thought it was a very good meeting.”
What was Griffin’s message?
“Just for us to continue on our journey,” center DeAndre Jordan said. “He obviously feels bad that he’s out but it’s not his fault and we told him that. He wants us to continue to play as if he’s on the floor.”
Rather than fly home to undergo more tests on his toe, which will likely require surgery, Griffin remained with the team and returned to Los Angeles on the team plane.
Griffin’s teammates said earlier Sunday that it was important to have him on the bench. Even if he wasn’t able to help on the floor, they believed he could make a difference for the team.
“We need his voice,” Jordan said. “We need his presence.”
Crawford echoed the sentiment. More than a spiritual lift, Griffin could also serve as a pseudo-coach.
“His energy’s contagious, and he’s such a student of the game,” Crawford said. “He sees so many different things and he can relate to the guards. He can relate to the bigs, he can relate to anybody out there because he can do pretty much anything out there on the court, so it’s always good having him out there.”
Crawford said the Clippers would approach the rest of the series with a mind toward what Griffin would expect of them.
“Blake wouldn’t want us to just bow out,” he said. “So for us he wants to just keep going and he’ll be there giving us advice on what he sees.”
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