ESPN cameras zeroed in on Nikola Jokic shortly after the Denver Nuggets swept the Los Angeles Lakers, at one point catching the superstar center hugging a staff member.
Within minutes, pictures of the moment began flooding the phone of Connor Griffin – the lesser-known half of the embrace.
“They were keying in on him, so that’s how I was in the picture,” said Griffin, the former Gonzaga walk-on whose meandering career path has led him to the NBA Finals as the Nuggets’ video coordinator/player development coach.
If you thought the Zags’ presence in the playoffs ended when Rui Hachimura and the Lakers bowed out, think again.
“Who would have thought I’d be the last one standing?” Griffin asked.
Well, Griffin, for one, and pretty much everyone in an organization that has been trending toward a title run with the do-it-all Jokic, savvy drafts and a plan orchestrated by eighth-year coach Michael Malone.
This is Griffin’s second season with the Nuggets. Those close to the Lake Oswego, Oregon, native know great things happened in Year 2 during Griffin’s playing career.
In the bouncy, 6-foot-4 wing’s second season as a Zag in 2015, Gonzaga reached the Elite Eight for the first time since 1999 before falling to eventual national champ Duke. Griffin left GU to walk on to the University of Washington’s football team, making his only career catch in the 2015 Heart of Dallas Bowl. The Huskies reached college football’s final four the following season before losing to Alabama.
Griffin knew he wanted to use his final year of eligibility playing hoops, so he joined the Lorenzo Romar-coached UW basketball team as a practice player. Griffin finished up at NAIA Vanguard (California) University the ensuing season and averaged 16.1 points and 6.9 rebounds while earning All-Golden State Athletic Conference honors.
Griffin then rejoined Romar at Pepperdine for three seasons as a graduate assistant and video coordinator before landing his job with Denver.
“It’s kind of cool to reflect on the experience now and specifically to Washington and Gonzaga,” Griffin said. “The same kind of path at all three and the first year at each wasn’t a bad season. Gonzaga won the WCC, lost in the round of 32 (in 2014). Washington made a bowl game. Last year we lost to the (Golden State) Warriors (in the first round).
“We had the talent at Gonzaga to make it to the Elite Eight, but it was the bonds off the floor and those things that stood out to me. It was truly a brotherhood and if you ask any of the guys here, it’s brothers with the players, coaching and support staff. Everyone cares for each other – same thing I felt at Gonzaga and UW.”
Denver has had a lengthy break since ending the Lakers’ season on May 22. The Nuggets didn’t learn their Finals opponents until Miami handled Boston in Game 7 on Monday, but the players and staff have been busy preparing for Thursday’s opening game.
Griffin knows all about working ahead. He travels with the team and typically prepares video clips of future opponents for the coaching staff.
“If we’re playing on a Monday, I’m usually working on next Monday’s opponent,” he said. “Even in the first round, I’m rolling ahead to the Clippers or Suns. After the Lakers, I’m looking at Boston and Miami, whether it’s cutting up a game in an easy way to watch or making video edits of all of Jimmy Butler’s midpost isos, all those miscellaneous things (coaches) will want for a matchup.”
The other part of Griffin’s job puts him back on the court, whether it’s putting a player through a workout or maybe stepping in as a defender in 1-on-1 or 5-on-5 situations.
Griffin, 28, said he’s slowed down a bit from his playing days, but his athleticism remains intact. A social media post last season showed Griffin casually tossing a pass high off the glass and finishing with a two-handed dunk before celebrating with one of the Nuggets.
Griffin helps with NBA draft preparations, compiling video clips of prospects and chatting with his collegiate contacts to gather more information. He also will be with the Nuggets’ summer league squad in Las Vegas in July.
“It’s a lot of work,” he said, “but you can’t convince me it’s work.”
Griffin will never forget his introduction to Jokic when he was new to the job last season as an assistant video coordinator.
“He was looking for someone, not me obviously,” recalled Griffin, who exchanged greetings with the two-time league MVP. “He goes, ‘Nikola,’ gives me knucks (fist bump) and a wink and walks out.”
Simple, subtle, entirely effective – just like Jokic’s game. He had a league-best 29 triple-doubles during the regular season. Former Zag Domantas Sabonis was second with 14 for Sacramento. Jokic scores inside and out – he hit memorable long 3-pointers over Anthony Davis and LeBron James in the Western Conference finals – distributes, rebounds and occasionally leads the break.
“He sees plays three or four plays before they occur. He dictates the offense and where the help is coming from, dissects a defense like I’ve never seen before,” Griffin said. “He honestly just toys with me and it’s so annoying. The first couple possessions, the main thing is I don’t want him to land on my foot and turn an ankle.
“After a couple of dummy defenses, I get fed up and I’m going to slap at the ball or hard contest. That’s when he really toys with me, gives me two or three shot fakes. Anytime I bump him, he uses it to spin off me. It’s really just a mind game.”
The core of Denver’s talented roster, including draft picks Jokic (No. 41 overall in 2014), Jamal Murray (No. 7 in 2016) and Michael Porter Jr. (No. 14 in 2018), has been together for years, though Murray missed last season with an injury and Porter was limited to nine games. They’ve been healthy this season and the Nuggets have been atop the Western Conference standings since mid-December en route to reaching the Finals for the first time in the franchise’s 47-year NBA history.
Griffin sees Nuggets gear everywhere he goes. It was a different story last season when Griffin remembers Phoenix playing in Denver and an arena filled mostly with Suns fans offering MVP chants for Devon Booker.
“There’s just a different vibe about this team,” Griffin said. “As great as this season has been, this isn’t a surprise to anyone on our team. Maybe outside looking in it is, but we knew all along with the talent and chemistry. We knew we had guys to do it.”
Griffin’s long-range goal is to become a head coach, likely at the college level, but he’s also developing a resume that could translate into a front-office position. For now, it’s all about finding a way to beat the Heat on the NBA’s biggest stage.
“I’m with such a good organization and learning a lot from the players and the staff,” Griffin said. “If you told me I’d be a head coach down the road or even working in a front office, I’d be a very happy man