DETROIT • With only three games into the new season, it is too premature to start a shortlist for the Most Valuable Player contenders but, if Blake Griffin continues to answer his critics, he will surely force his way into the reckoning for the first time since the 2013-14 National Basketball Association campaign.
The forward, third in the voting four years ago, scored a career-high 50 points - including a game-winning three-point play with 1.8 seconds left in overtime - and grabbed 14 rebounds as the Detroit Pistons edged out the visiting Philadelphia 76ers 133-132 on Tuesday.
The Sixers, who were paced by 33 points from Joel Embiid, had a 132-130 lead with 5.6 seconds on the clock until Griffin's heroics.
The five-time All-Star admitted that he had been hampered by inconsistency and injury problems during his last few years with the Los Angeles Clippers, but his pre-season focus on fitness is "paying off", with Detroit off to a 3-0 start.
"You know, the past two, three years, all I hear about is how bad I am, and I've been hurt, I've had bad games," the 29-year-old said after being showered by "M-V-P" chants.
"Being able to work out for the first time in three summers is huge. I was able to really put time in and work on my game, work on my body, and I've always been a big believer in hard work."
Griffin's big night, this season's first 50-point game, was the most scored by a Pistons player since Rip Hamilton's 51 points against the New York Knicks on Dec 27, 2006. According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was also the first 40-point, 10-rebound game by a Piston since Isiah Thomas 35 years ago.
Blake Griffin's previous career high.
Career high number of baskets he scored against Philadelphia on Tuesday.
"Of all the great players I've worked with, Dirk (Nowitzki), Kyle Lowry, Kevin Garnett, Shawn Kemp, all those guys, he's playing at that high level right now," said Pistons coach Dwane Casey of Griffin, who set a career mark with 20 field goals and equalled a career-high of five three-pointers.
"And he's just one of those guys that is taking it to another level, leading his team, putting them on his back, being a leader in the timeout. But again, that's what we expect from Blake because he is that good a player."
The Pistons have made the play-offs only once in the last nine years, and even then they were bounced out in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016.
But, with Griffin fully fit and primed to play his first 80-game season since 2014, expectations are being raised among Pistons fans that they can make it to the post-season again.
"The goal to get to the play-offs is a big goal, but it's small steps along the way," Griffin, who is averaging 36.3 points so far, told the Detroit Free Press.