Memphis Grabs Momentum in OKC: Mike Conley is Mr. Steady-Spectacular

My favorite thing about the 2013 playoffs, thus far, is that TEAMS are winning, while individual stars are losing.  This is nothing new.  Playoff basketball amplifies weaknesses: coaching weaknesses, individual player weaknesses, and team weaknesses.  While we should certainly feel some empathy for Kevin Durant (he is an unselfish scorer) and now Brooks is asking him to become Atlas, the world on his lanky shoulders, we should be praising the teamwork and determination of Memphis.  Nearly every shot they take is a smart one.  Nearly every defensive possession is a crisp one.  Memphis simply doesn’t take plays off.  And they have the health and depth to push past their opponents.  More importantly, Memphis has been playing this way all season.  And most of the last three years.  They deserve to be rewarded and they are.  Hiring John Hollinger is another example of the way they embrace analytics, player evaluation, and resist convention.  The fact that they are small market means they can make the Rudy Gay trade (both saving money and further balancing their offense) without the knee-jerk backlash that would come if they were in Los Angeles or Chicago.  Memphis is flat out smart and unselfish.  The parallels to San Antonio are many.  Great defensive center.  Great coaching.  Small market.  Under the radar.  Win with defense.

Mike Conley was steady-spectacular again in the second half of Game 2.  Never flashy, Conley, simply plays excellent defense, makes great decisions in the pick-and-roll (he also has the luxury of two excellent pickers Gasol and Randolph), and drains clutch long-range jumpers more often than not.  After struggling a bit in the early-tip during Game 1 Sunday, Conley was the key to Memphis’ offensive outburst in the 3rd and 4th quarters of Game 2.  Conley quietly orchestrates Memphis’ perimeter scoring, making great in-traffic passes to baseline cutters (Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince) and finding the sweet-shooting Quincy Pondexter whenever he has an opening.  Conley is flourishing since the Rudy Gay trade and the offense is more concretely inside-out, with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph providing great picks for him at the top of the key.

Thunder Offense

It’s a testament to Memphis’ defense that they know how to keep everyone but Durant from getting in an offensive groove.  Durant’s game 2 (36 pts / 11 reb / 9 ast / 5 turnovers) Scott Brooks has chosen to run everything through Durant at all times Durant is on the court, essentially making him a point forward in the absence of Westbrook.  While it’s understandable that Brooks is relying so heavily on Durant (what coach wouldn’t?) Durant’s 4th quarter’s have shown a level of exhaustion that doesn’t bode well for the Thunder.  As determined as Durant is, Brooks can’t afford to give him enough rest, and the role players are not doing enough to support him.

Brooks is hesitant to trust Jackson or Martin, and with good reason: Neither can handle Memphis’ defensive pressure.  Few can handle it.  Even Chris Paul, the league’s steadiest ball-handler and decision-maker, struggled at times after Griffin’s injury.  Memphis’ Tony Allen and Mike Conley are two of the best on-the-ball defenders in the game.

What happened when Brooks gave Durant a breather to start the 4th quarter?  The five-point lead Durant had spent the third quarter building, slipped away.  Two Tony Allen steals (a Kevin Martin pass and a Reggie Jackson dribble) later, Memphis had a 9-2 run and took command, 78-76.

Critical Fragments

  • 27 lead changes in this game: most in a playoff game since 2009
  • Memphis: 16 offensive rebounds
  • OKC: 21 turnovers
  • By getting second chances and forcing turnovers, Memphis took 16 more shots (86-70) than OKC.
  • Kevin Martin’s 2 of 11
  • Durant (via shot or pass) has accounted for 62% of Thunder made baskets in Games 1 and 2.  Obviously, he needs more help.

Game Scores:

Oklahoma City

Kevin Durant, Captain I-Miss-My-Pal-Russ: 30.8

The M-I-J Trio (Martin-Ibaka-Jackson): 13.2

After combining for 28.7 in Game 1, and barely pulling out the victory thanks to Durant’s heroics and a few untimely Memphis mistakes, the M-I-J Trio were M-I-A, combining for a lowly 13.2 score in Game 2.  Add in Fisher’s 14.5, and the quartet’s total is under 28 for the game.  Though the game was hard-fought and close, there is no way that Durant can be expected to simply “put this team on his back,” without any help from his teammates.

When I hear Shaq talk about how “Durant” has to step up, it’s obvious Shaq has no idea how to think about performance.  Barkley, on the other hand, emphasized how Brooks needs to incorporate Martin and Jackson earlier and more often, in order to attempt to balance the offense, and to save Durant for the fourth quarter.

Kevin Martin, Mr. In-Over-His-Head: 0.4, yes, ZERO-point-four.

Serge Ibaka, Lost-Confidence-Man: 7.4

Reggie Jackson, Mr. Not-Westbrook: 5.4

Derek Fisher, The-Wily-Veteran-Who-Won’t-Retire: 14.5

Fisher dropped in 4 of 5 from distance, and his 14 first-half points were huge to the Thunder’s early lead.  Memphis made sure Fisher had no breathing space in the second half.


In order to analyze Memphis’ individual performance, the first caveat is that they balance their offense better than any other playoff team, which keeps any of their game scores from being as high as players like Durant and Curry.  

Mike Conley‘s Game 2 numbers: 26 pts (11 of 22 from field) / 10 reb / 9 ast / only 2 turnovers; 19 of his 26 points came in second half.  Conley’s play was immaculate in the second half.  He will be known as Mr. Steady Spectacular for the remainder of these playoffs.

Game Scores, with nicknames:

Mike Conley, Mr. Steady Spectacular: 23.3

Marc Gasol, Dr. M.G. Efficiency Expert: 23.4

Zach Randolph, Sir Hug-a-lot (great clip here): 14.0

Tony Allen, Mr. Nasty Tenacious: 10.9

Click on this link to check out a great visual summary of plus-minus, which highlights how important Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are to the Grizzlies success.


Upcoming Playoffs Schedule

The NBA has decided to give Memphis-OKC and Indiana-New York an extra long rest before they resume their series, which means neither team will play for three days (Wed-Fri).  Note: Saturday night’s Indiana-NY Game 3 is on ABC.

Wednesday, May 8

Chicago @ Miami, Game 2, 7pm EST, TNT

Golden State @ San Antonio, Game 2, 1030pm EST, TNT

Friday, May 10

Miami @ Chicago, Game 3, 8pm EST, ESPN

San Antonio @ Golden State, Game 3, 1030 EST, ESPN

Saturday, May 11

OKC @ Memphis, Game 3, 5pm EST, ESPN

New York @ Indiana, Game 3, 8pm EST, ABC

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