Zach Lowe On the Rise of Mike Conley

Memphis-OKC, Game 4: Grizzlies 103-97 (OT),

Series: 3-1, Memphis

Game 5 @ Oklahoma City, 930 EST, TNT

I love the fact that Memphis pulled it out last night in overtime, to take a stranglehold on their series with Oklahoma City, three games to one.  Kevin Durant finally got some first-half help from the trio of Martin, Ibaka and Jackson, but Memphis survived the first half flurry and the third-quarter surge by securing monumental offensive rebounds in the 4th quarter and OT, and watching as Kevin Durant’s wheels fall off (3 of 17 in 4th quarter and OT of Games 3 and 4).   The exhaustion, combined with Mike Conley’s once-again clutch play on both ends of the court, and his incredible quickness in the middle of the court (also known as mid-court), has lifted Memphis to within one game of the Western Conference Finals.

It’s easy to appreciate the hustle when you watch Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen.  Credit to Reggie Jackson and Nick Collison for matching that level of intensity.

Read the opening of Zach Lowe’s Mike Conley tribute-piece below, or click here for the whole story:

Here’s a fun exercise: Pick any NBA player and try to picture his go-to move on offense. For LeBron James, you’ll likely think of him negotiating a pick-and-roll up high, probably going to his left, scanning the defense for a driving lane or a clear pass to a spot-up shooter in the corner. For Tim Duncan, it’ll be a pet post-up move from the left block. Tyson Chandler is almost tearing off the rim while finishing a lob dunk, and Matt Bonner is shot-putting a 3-pointer from the top of the arc.

Now try it for Mike Conley, point guard of the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that just might be the favorite in the Western Conference after taking a 3-1 series lead with an OT win Monday night over the Thunder. This exercise is easy for most point guards, because they dominate the ball and get to imprint their stylistic flair into our brains. But it’s tough for Conley, isn’t it? If you’re a regular Grizz watcher, you’ll eventually land on his righty floater in the lane. But how did he get into the lane? And how does he score the rest of his 15 points per game (up to about 17.5 in the playoffs)? What are his trademark passes?

Conley sort of defies this exercise, even for those of us who spend unhealthy amounts of time watching NBA basketball. And that’s fitting. Conley’s game on both ends is one of refined subtlety, and it can take a long time in the NBA for that sort of player to find the right rhythms. That has been doubly so for Conley, who entered the league a “frail” 19-year-old, says his coach, Lionel Hollins. Conley spends the bulk of his time on the floor with two slow-moving behemoths who control the Grizzlies’ pace, own the real estate south of the foul line, and prop up one of the league’s last true inside-out offenses. Conley doesn’t have spectacular pick-and-roll lob partners, a 3-point shooting power forward to open up space down low, or even all that much time when he’s clearly the controlling figure in Memphis’s offense. So how good, really, is Mike Conley?

That mystery made even the sunniest members of the Grizzlies organization a little nervous when they unloaded Rudy Gay, the team’s leading scorer, in a trade meant primarily to clean up the team’s short- and long-term salary cap picture. The Grizz, who received Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis in return, were a bottom-10 scoring team even with Gay.1 If everything went right, the Grizz could remain a fringe contender built around a ferocious top-three defense and a sputtering offense that might fart out enough points to win some 90-85 games in the first round or two of the playoffs.

Memphis has become more than that, in large part because Conley has flourished under the pressure of an increased burden. The same is true of Marc Gasol. Both have been more efficient since the Gay trade despite taking on a larger burden within Memphis’s offense — a transition from low-usage to high-usage that makes most NBA geeks queasy. Guys taking 10 carefully selected shots every night might flounder a bit, the thinking goes, if the departure of a high-volume shooter forces them to add three or four tougher shots to the menu.



Zach Lowe is a genuine hoops expert who writes for Grantland.

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