By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – The hardest part is always ignoring your conscious.
That’s a battle Mike Conley will carry into the playoffs this weekend when his No. 7-seed Memphis Grizzlies face the No. 2-seed San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the postseason. Instinctively, Conley is one of the most unselfish facilitators in the NBA, and has been throughout his decade in the league.
So it’s understandable that a career season in which he’s scored exactly 1,400 points on 1,001 shots entering Wednesday’s regular-season finale against Dallas still delivers Conley to the same crossroads.
“Still even today, I catch myself (thinking) if I miss two in a row, I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve got to pass. I’ve got to make sure somebody else gets a shot,’” Conley said Tuesday as the Grizzlies began preparations for their series against the Spurs. “Even if I make two in a row, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve shot too much. I’ve got to give it to somebody else.’ The mindset change was the hardest part for me, because I’m not a guy that’s used to shooting in volume. But lately, I’ve seen the benefits of when I’m aggressive.”
While the Grizzlies (43-38) have struggled to maintain rhythm through a season that has alternated emotional highs of road wins in Golden State and Houston with demoralizing home lows in losses to the Kings and Nets, one of the few constants has been Conley’s breakout scoring performances.
For the first time in his 10-year career, Conley will finish a season averaging more than 20 points a game and lead the Grizzlies in scoring. He enters Wednesday’s game against the Mavericks averaging 20.6 points in 68 games. Even if Conley plays and is held scoreless at FedExForum for the first time all season, he would finish the regular season with an average of 20.2 points a game.
A prolific season for Conley hasn’t exactly equated to a smoother ride for the Grizzlies in coach David Fizdale’s first season. Although the franchise point guard’s numbers peaked in March, the Grizzlies have gone just 9-14 since the mid-February All-Star break. Developing Conley as a vocal leader and a dominant scorer in his first season under a five-year, $153 million contract was a priority for Fizdale.
Implementing an open offense predicated on spacing and three-point shooting cleared the necessary space for Conley to evolve. In addition to his increased scoring, the Grizzlies also set franchise records for three-pointers made and attempted this season. For Conley, the upturn has seen him produce 10 of his 15 career 30-point games this season, including five games with seven made three-pointers. He still averages a team-high 6.3 assists, which are just shy of the career-high 6.5 he averaged five years ago.
“Mike has been playing out of his mind,” Fizdale said. “I think he can give me even more. This year was a feeling-out period. I think a lot of guys had to adjust to the fact Mike was going to be more aggressive, especially (Zach Randolph) and Marc (Gasol), because they’re used to him being the initiator. But they did it seamlessly, because I think Marc ended up having a better year and ZBo had a great year off the bench for us. And I think (Mike) is just scratching the surface for us.”
Conley’s perseverance has been a critical part of the process. After a strong start to the season that garnered strong consideration from opposing coaches for All-Star consideration, Conley fractured vertebrae in his back in November and missed three weeks. A few weeks of inconsistent stretches carried Conley into the All-Star break, but he gradually hit his stride the past two months.
A major influence on Conley’s approach has been Grizzlies assistant coach Nick Van Exel, a former NBA All-Star who was a score-first point guard for many of his 13 seasons in the league. Van Exel has been in Conley’s ear throughout the season, especially during games when he sees lapses in aggression.
During his playing days, Van Exel found ways to impose his will on those mid-1990s Lakers teams that were anchored by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. He wants Conley in the same take-charge mode.
“Nick has been huge,” Conley said. “When I’m not playing well, he’s like, ‘You haven’t touched the paint this quarter. Keep going at the rim. You’ve only had two free throws.’ He’s always telling me I need to be more aggressive in every aspect. I watched a lot of film from when he played and how he played. And he’s trying to give me that same mentality. I think he’s done a great job of helping me with that.”
Gasol has seen Conley grow from being an accommodating playmaker that always deferred to veterans such as Rudy Gay, Randolph and others along the years to becoming a go-to threat capable of handling the primary scoring role game after game. Gasol cringes at the mention of anyone’s individual statistics, and prefers to gauge a player’s impact based on the team’s overall success.
But Gasol believes Conley’s scoring has become a necessity for Memphis.
“Obviously, he’s always been that talented and we need him to score that way,” Gasol said. “We need him to score 20-plus points because he’s the trigger to our offense. We run probably 80 percent, 90 percent of initial action with him. We need him to be aggressive, because if that doesn’t trigger the rest of the stuff, then we’re stuck. When he’s not out there, our offense gets a little more static.”
That essentially means Conley’s offensive punch provides relief, even though he had been reluctant for years to branch out as an elite scoring option.
“Honestly, I didn’t really know because I never really had the opportunity to be this free before,” Conley said of adjusting to a different set of demands. “But I always knew I was a great shooter and that I can knock it down when I’m open. Defenses have played me differently each month.”
Another benefit of Conley’s breakout regular season?
The full Kawhi Leonard treatment. Conley expects to be defended by the Spurs’ two-time reigning NBA defensive player of the year when the series begins this weekend in San Antonio. Leonard and Conley literally bumped heads when matched up with one another during the Spurs’ overtime win last week. Conley left that game with a lacerated eyelid that required stitches and forced him out of the next game.
Conley has adapted to both the mental and physical demands of this revamped role.
“I’m looking forward to it and I’ve prepared for it,” Conley said. “I get trapped differently. They put taller guys on me, more hands in my face when I shoot, and I get fouled a lot. I had to learn a lot this season how to stay focused when I’m taking shots.”
One thousand and one shots later, it’s sinking in.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.