| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES Blake Griffin is making the leap to heights even he has never reached.
The Los Angeles Clippers forward is best known for the gravity defying dunks that have made him a regular on highlight reels, but Blake is evolving as a player and taken his game up a notch to emerge as one of the most lethal weapons in the NBA.
As the Clippers have navigated through key injuries and a transition to first-year coach Doc Rivers, it is their 24-year-old power forward who has led the way with a game that continues to blossom.
"Blake has been sensational. He's his own breed, there's nothing really like him," Clippers coach Rivers told reporters. "He just does so many things. We've found other things that he can do that we didn't know."
Griffin's capabilities were on full display on Wednesday when the Clippers (37-18) outgunned the Portland Trail Blazers (36-17) 122-117 in a Western Conference shootout.
Matched up against fellow All Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, Griffin won the battle and the contest with a 36-point, 10-rebound effort.
The performance featured the dunks we have come to expect from Griffin, the ones that will send fans searching them on YouTube clips, but it was a night rooted more in substance than style.
The 6-foot-10 Griffin flashed his ball-handling and passing, an ever improving mid-range jump shot and tough defense in the paint.
These developments have been in the making, but Griffin's new-found consistency is a chief reason the team now heads to the All Star break looking like a formidable West contender.
"(Griffin) facing up has just become a weapon," Rivers said about the options at Blake's disposal when he gets the ball facing the basket.
"It's so hard to guard and if you do he's such a great passer. That combination is what has opened it up. If you help, he'll pick you apart."
The No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft, Griffin has been picking apart defenses better than ever before.
He has scored 36 points or more in four of his last five games and has not slowed down since point guard Chris Paul returned to the lineup for the past two contests.
Paul had missed 18 games with an injured shoulder. It was a stretch that could have sunk the Clippers in the standings, but they went 12-6 without Paul largely behind the play of Griffin.
"Blake's dominance is something that we need. He's been our MVP all season long," Paul said. "I keep telling him: 'I don't want to stop that. I don't want to hinder that. I just want to be a part of it.'"
With Paul back on the floor there is unlimited potential for an offense already among the best in the league.
"We've got a lot of different options, which is nice," said Griffin, averaging 24.2 points and 9.8 rebounds for the season.
"You can't just key in on one guy. My job is to get in the middle and give (Paul) an outlet; either make a play or give it to (someone else)."
A four-time All Star, Griffin will be front and center in New Orleans this weekend for the NBA's star-powered exhibition.
And while he will undoubtedly put on an aerial show, the real jump in Griffin's game has come with his two feet planted on the court.
(Editing by Larry Fine)