NBA champion Raptors' resolve personified by assistant coach Adrian Griffin
by James Herbert
TORONTO -- A week before they won the 2019 NBA championship, a couple of Toronto Raptors assistant coaches discussed the physical and mental toughness it takes to compete with the Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson bend defenses with the mere threat of their shooting, and they tire out opponents with their movement away from the ball. Against any elite offensive team, you must be disciplined and dialed-in. The Warriors are particularly challenging because they test your will. Beating them requires being unfazed by deep, difficult shots going in. They will go on runs; it is your job to limit and withstand them.
"You can play the perfect defense, and they're going to come off these screens and pindowns and they're going to bury a couple of shots," Toronto assistant coach Adrian Griffin told CBS Sports. "You can do everything right and they're still going to score. You just have to have the fortitude to come back the next trip down and say, 'OK, I'm going to lock in, I'm going to get back into his body, I'm going to keep contesting. And I'm going to keep coming and I'm going to keep coming.' And I think that's the approach that our team has taken."
To win big in the NBA, the assistant coaches agreed, resilience is non-negotiable. The schedule is unforgiving, and it pushes you the same way Golden State does. When things go wrong, players must focus on the next play, the next game. Coaches have to believe their team is an adjustment or two away from getting back on track. In a way, then, it is fitting that the Raptors didn't close out the Warriors at Scotiabank Arena in Game 5, instead clinching their NBA title in the last game that will ever be played at Oracle Arena, a tense 114-110 victory on Thursday. It is also fitting that Kawhi Leonard didn't dominate and they won anyway, with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka shining especially bright.
Toronto's roster is devoid of lottery picks and full of players who will tell you they did things the hard way. Its head coach, Nick Nurse, spent just about three decades coaching everywhere from Vermillion, South Dakota to Ostend, Belgium before his big break. Next to Nurse on the bench, though, is a man who has been far less heralded during the Raptors' championship season, but embodies their resolve as well as anybody: Griffin.
Griffin went undrafted in 1996 out of Seton Hall. He played three years in the CBA after being cut in the Philippines. "I couldn't even get past a summer league tryout to make the summer league team," he said. He landed a tryout with the Dallas Mavericks and he called his dad, crying "like a baby" and questioning himself. David Alan Griffin Sr., a preacher, told him not to give up on his dream.
Adversity reveals character. Pressure makes diamonds. Anyone can recite motivational cliches, and most athletes have heard a million of them. It is another thing to actually endure true trials and tribulations in a league that is cutthroat, with your mistakes magnified and a razor-thin line between being a rotation player and a washout. Griffin's father loved to tell him that "you don't go to the place God has in store for you, you grow into it." When he talked about continuing to believe in himself and fight for his career, it resonated because Griffin knew the words weren't empty.
Growing up in Kansas, Griffin's father did whatever had to be done to provide for the family. He cleaned corporate offices, scrubbing toilets and folding tables and taking trash out. He made sure his kids understood the value of hard work.
"He would take me and my brother out -- I was probably 10 years old, and we would go through the trash and find cans, aluminum cans," Griffin said. "Back then you used to take all your cans to the shop and they'd give you maybe five cents a can. In the summers, we would push our lawnmowers door to door and knock on doors in the neighborhood and cut lawns. And he would give us like five dollars out of what we made, 10 dollars."
Whenever Griffin vented to him about basketball, the preacher shifted the conversation toward his spiritual life. The idea was to address his attitude toward the problem, not the problem itself, an approach Griffin has carried with him as a coach, long after his dad died in 2000. The player who isn't boxing out isn't happy with his minutes. The player who appears to be uncoachable has other things on his mind.
"What's happening, especially I think in the younger generation, is that they have this perception that everything is supposed to go well," Griffin said." But really in life there's a lot of ebbs and flows, a lot of highs and lows, a lot of peaks and valleys, and you gotta learn how to navigate through those things. If I would have given up years ago, I wouldn't be standing here."
In the summer of 2005, Griffin's agent was led to believe the Chicago Bulls would re-sign him. They "kind of reneged on the contract," Griffin said, leaving him paranoid and anxious, working out two or three times a day while waiting for the phone to ring. When he couldn't sleep, he would get out of bed after midnight and run on the treadmill. Four weeks into the season, the Mavericks signed him. He got two DNP-CDs and played 10 minutes in his third game; in his fourth, he started next to Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley. Six months later, he started in the Finals.
As a player, Griffin made his money on defense. He often guarded star wings, and he did so with the same unwavering determination that VanVleet displayed chasing Curry around. As a role player who rarely looked for his own shot, though, he bounced around the league. Two years in Boston, then two in Dallas, one in Houston and one in Chicago. Back to Dallas for a year, then back to Chicago for a year and a half. A few months in Seattle. "I always thought, 'Man, why can't I stick in one place?'" Griffin said. But now he says his unique gift is his varied experience, listing former teammates off the top of his head: Nowitzki, Nash, Finley, Yao Ming, Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, Kevin Durant.
Griffin played for a variety of coaches, too: Rick Pitino, Don Nelson, Jeff Van Gundy, Avery Johnson, Scott Skiles and P.J. Carlesimo. Skiles cut him at the end of Bucks training camp in 2008 and offered him a spot on his staff before hanging up the phone. Griffin has now been an assistant coach in the NBA for 11 seasons after nine playing in the league. He considers Tom Thibodeau, his boss in Chicago from 2010 to 2015, a father figure, and is thankful for how Thibodeau pushed him and held him accountable. Griffin's leadership style, though, is less aggressive than Thibodeau's, his temperament more like that of Nurse and Billy Donovan, the Oklahoma City coach he worked with for two years. Griffin believes there are different ways to lead. What matters most is authenticity.
Griffin has interviewed for six head-coaching jobs, including the recently filled Memphis opening. He remains patient, though, reminding himself that you don't go into it, you grow into it. Sometimes, he said, if you get an opportunity quickly, you're not as prepared as you could be. Griffin considers himself significantly more well-rounded than he was five years ago and thinks his basketball IQ has "almost doubled" under Nurse, whose first season in charge in Toronto is itself an argument for staying ready for the right opportunity. Almost evangelical in his belief in the power of coaching, he said that, from middle school to college and minor leagues to the NBA, every coach he has played for or worked with has made a profound impact on him.
"That's the ministry that coaches have," Griffin said. "And they impact lives. It changes lives more than we would ever know."
When Griffin says he believes the job is about making better men, not just making better basketball players, it sounds earnest, not like typical coachspeak. At Jimmy Butler's Most Improved Player press conference in 2015, the star wing famously gave Griffin a shout-out for dealing with him when he was an "unbearable" rookie, frustrated with being out of the Bulls' rotation. "He has a lot to do with who I am," Butler said back then. Those words still mean the world to Griffin, but the 44-year-old cringes when people credit him for Butler's development. In Butler's first season, Griffin shadowed Ron Adams as the more experienced assistant coach worked with him.
"Ron laid the foundation," Griffin said. "I just tried to watch and learn as much as I could."
Griffin tells young players about how Butler went from riding the bench to playing all 48 minutes in his second season. Injuries gave him an opportunity, and he earned the coaching staff's trust with his defense. Butler showed no fear guarding LeBron James in the regular season and got the job again in the second round of the playoffs. Griffin can also reach back to his playing days, whether he is talking about his own journey or Nowitzki developing a killer instinct or a 19-year-old Durant trying to adjust to the league as a shooting guard on a 20-win team. His stories, he said, are his superpower.
As a young coach, Griffin took offense when players questioned him. Over time he understood that modern coaches have to be great listeners and communicators. This year, he lightly called out a player who didn't fully buy into his role and showed it in his body language. Like Griffin, the Raptors have evolved, and he appreciates the way they "buckle down, grit their teeth and they come back stronger" when challenged. He knows better than anyone that there is no such thing as a perfect season, only one in which you outlast the competition.
"Life is about perseverance," Griffin said.