LOS ANGELES — The NBA is moving on to the postseason without its brightest young star. Blake Griffin put on highlight-worthy performances nearly every night, became an All-Star and single-handedly made the Los Angeles Clippers relevant again.
He just couldn't get them to the playoffs in his rookie season.
And as seasons go, that's nothing new for the Clippers, who went 32-50. They haven't finished with a winning record since 2005-06, also the last time the team reached the playoffs.
What made this season special was the emergence of Griffin, whose soaring dunks and athleticism turned the Clippers into a must-see team on the road and at home, where their 18 sellouts were 13 more than all of last season.
He's exiting before getting a turn on the NBA's biggest stage after averaging 22.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists. He played all 82 games after missing the previous season because of a knee injury.
"Mentally where I'm at now as opposed to 82 games ago, it's not even funny," Griffin said, recalling the long slog through surgery, rehabilitation and watching last season from the bench. "The experience is the best part for me, just being able to be out there (this season)."
The 22-year-old forward certainly made the most of his time. Griffin became the first NBA rookie to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds since former Clipper Elton Brand did it with the Chicago Bulls.
He broke the rookie record for double-doubles with 63 — including 27 in a row during one stretch. He finished with triple-double in the team's final game, a 110-103 victory over Memphis on Wednesday night.
"He's the future of the NBA," nine-year pro Shane Battier of Memphis said.
And who can forget All-Star weekend in Los Angeles?
Griffin won the slam dunk contest in buzz-worthy fashion by leaping over a car and became the first rookie on the All-Star team since Yao Ming in 2002-03.
"I enjoyed every minute of it, I would do it all over the exact same way," he said.
At the same time, though, Griffin doesn't let himself think long about the huge splash he created.
"It's definitely humbling for me and I appreciate it and I appreciate all the help from my teammates and my coaches," he said. "This season is one season for me and I want to be playing basketball for a long, long time. You got to move on."
He'll be watching the playoffs because as he explains, "That's how you learn."
Griffin plans to spend the summer working on his shooting and ballhandling skills, while searching for new ways to surprise opposing defenses that tried to make his nights miserable as the season wore on.
"Of course, his dunking and athleticism stands out, but how skilled he is with the basketball, he can dribble, he can pass it, things like that stand out," Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant said.
"He's been given the freedom to do whatever he wants on that team. I've been in that same situation. Once you do that, your confidence grows every day, every month and you start to get better."
Griffin was the only Clipper to play every game while his teammates struggled with injuries.
Among the starters, Eric Gordon, another franchise cornerstone like Griffin, missed 24 games with a sprained wrist; Baron Davis missed 15 games with a sore knee before eventually being traded to Cleveland; and Chris Kaman sat out 47 games with ankle and knee injuries.
The Clippers began the season with a 5-21 record, mostly the result of the rash of injuries and having three rookies in the starting lineup. But things turned around in January when they won nine of 14 games, a stretch Griffin picked as his favorite moment of the season.
"It was a blast. Winning is what you're going for so to be able to do that was a lot of fun," he said. "The mood was lighter, and that's how it should be."
Despite being well below .500, the Clippers knocked off some of the league's best, including East-leading Chicago, West-leading San Antonio, Miami, and the two-time defending champion Lakers.
"Next year, I think they'll be in the playoffs," Durant said. "Everybody has to pay their dues. You can't come in and everything be peachy keen so I'm sure next year is their year."
Griffin is all but certain to win rookie of the year, an honor many had forecast early on would go to Washington's John Wall.
"It's great, but I'm not hanging my hat on that," Griffin said. "It's funny how at the beginning of the year I would get Twitter comments like, 'John Wall is going to beat you, so-and-so is going to beat you.' Now they come and it's like, 'You cheated, you're not even a rookie.'"
Griffin is optimistic about next season, knowing the Clippers are young and athletic at nearly every position. He and the other rookie starters gained valuable experience and showed flashes of brilliance that hinted at what could be possible.
"The exciting thing for Blake and for myself, the team, and the fans is I know there's a lot more there," first-year Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "He's a worker and he'll get better, just like he has from the beginning of the year to now."
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